Interfaith Worker Justice

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Another Papa John’s Agrees to Pay Stiffed Workers $500,000 in Back Wages

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From New York Magazine:

by Clint Rainey

Greedy Papa John’s franchisees continue to suffer the wrath of labor-law crusader Eric Schneiderman. According to an announcement today, the New York attorney general’s years-long fight against fast-food wage abuse has just secured at least the thirdmajor penalty against the pizza chain since 2015. The office says that franchisee Sultan Ali Lakhani has agreed to pay $500,000 in back wages and damages to more than 200 employees as part of a deal with both Schneiderman and the Labor Department. It’s a big payout considering that Lakhani owns just two Manhattan locations and one in the Bronx.

Beyond the $500,000, his office says Lakhani must also set up a protocol for employee complaints, post a statement of workers’ rights, and let the attorney general’s office monitor his progress for three years. A press release announcing the victory points out that this is the eighth time Schneiderman has caught a Papa John’s franchise violating wage laws — and doesn’t suggest he’s getting tired of it. If there are any other owners out there still skimming employee wages, it’s time to give that a rest.

Read more from New York Magazine

Nebraska produce farmer fined over migrant workers

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Elizabeth Good/Flickr

From Nebraska Radio Network:

by Mike Loizzo

The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) reports Daniels Produce near Columbus did not pay Mexican and Guatemalan workers the required minimum wage and told the migrant employees to lie during the investigation.

Kelly Jackson, Daniels Produce office manager, says an administrative judge found there was no intimidation of workers, but she does admit mistakes regarding the issue of pay.

“We made errors calculating pay and travel reimbursements for our H-2A workers and U.S. workers back in 2012 and 2013,” Jackson tells Nebraska Radio Network. “In fact, we were making up those amounts to workers even before the settlement was reached with the USDOL.

The farm is paying $250,000 in back wages for 89 workers.

“It was 89 people over two years and a majority of them were people that decided, ‘I’m going to work on a farm for a day or two,” Jackson says. “So, there were not 89 people here at one time.”

Daniels Produce also must pay a $20,000 fine for violating the law.

Richard Tesarek is the assistant district director at USDOL’s Wage and Hour Division in Omaha. He says says this is a good lesson for other agricultural producers.

“These employers will ask for these workers and all of these requirements are spelled out in writing,” Tesarek tells Nebraska Radio Network. “They know what they’re getting into before they do this.”

Read more from Nebraska Radio Network.

Grad students at private universities can unionize, labor board rules

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From The Wall Street Journal:

by Melanie Trottman

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Columbia University graduate students are employees under federal labor law, paving the way for graduate students at private colleges nationwide to join labor unions.

The victory for the Columbia graduate students that petitioned to join a union could potentially deliver tens of thousands of membersto the nation’s struggling labor movement.

In a 3-1 decision announced Tuesday, the board of mostly Democrats said there is no clear language in the National Labor Relations Act that prohibits the teaching assistants from being afforded the protections of employees, including the right to unionize.

The students deserved such protections when “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated,” the board’s majority said in its decision.

It will also pose a challenge for some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, which had warned a decision in favor of the students could disrupt colleges across the country by injecting collective bargaining into graduate programs.

The ruling reversed a 2004 decision involving Brown University, saying that decision “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing jurisdiction.”

The NLRB oversees union-organizing elections and referees workplace disputes in most of the private sector. It doesn’t have jurisdiction in the public sector. A small portion of the roughly one million graduate students at public universities have been unionized for decades.

Labor groups have said the 2004 decision should be overturned because graduate students provide essential services for universities and should be able to be considered employees if they act, at least in part, to serve the employer.

The petition from the Columbia graduate students had drawn opposition from schools including Harvard University and Stanford University. In a joint legal brief, the schools had said collective bargaining in graduate programs could disrupt their ability to choose who would teach specific classes. The ruling could also cost schools millions of dollars in increased compensation.

Read more from The Wall Street Journal

Chipotle Employees Are Now Free to Complain on Twitter

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From Eater:

by Virginia Chamlee

When a Chipotle employee in Havertown, Pennsylvania found himself dissatisfied with his job last year, he did what many people do: aired his grievances on Twitter. But after tweeting about wages and circulating a petition asking managers to give workers their legally mandated breaks, James Kennedy was fired for violating the burrito chain’s social media policy. Now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found that the policy in question (which bans employees from "spreading inaccurate information") violates federal labor laws.

According to the New York Post, Kennedy’s first tweet came in response to a customer who tweeted her thanks for a free food offer in January 2015. In response, he wrote: "@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?"

He eventually took the tweet down after being warned by management, but shortly after began circulating a petition that alleged workers weren’t able to take breaks. Kennedy was then fired.

In a decision delivered August 18, the National Labor Relations Board said the chain went too far — not just in firing Kennedy, but for having such stringent social media policies in place at all. As a result, the NLRB has ordered Chipotle to cease and desist from, well, just about everything when it comes to how employees interact on social media.

The decision itself is lengthy, but it orders Chipotle to stop "prohibiting employees from circulating petitions regarding the company’s adherence to its break policy or any other terms and conditions of employment." Petitions regarding pay, breaks, and overtime have cropped up a lot recently. In some cases, they’ve proven successful, at least in terms of getting the attention of company CEOs; one Starbucks employee received a personal phone call from CEO Howard Schultz after he penned his own petition on

According to the NLRB, not only must Chipotle stop enforcing its petition rule, but it can no longer fire employees, like Kennedy, for circulating such a petition.

The NLRB decision also cites a number of other company rules that Chipotle must cease, such as a "Political/Religious Activity and Contributions" rule, which prohibits employees from "discussing politics and from using [Chipotle’s] name for political purposes."

As Bloomberg notes, the judge also ordered the chain to post signs acknowledging that some of its employee policies (specifically the social media rules) were illegal.

The NLRB further ordered the burrito behemoth to offer Kennedy his job back within 14 days and provide him with any lost earnings he suffered "as a result of the discrimination against him."

Read more from Eater

Judge orders Minneapolis $15 minimum wage question to ballot

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From the Star-Tribune:

by Eric Golden

A Hennepin County judge on Monday overruled the Minneapolis City Council's decision to block a $15 minimum wage charter amendment, ordering that the issue be placed on the November ballot.

Judge Susan Robiner issued her decision more than a week after she heard arguments from advocates who gathered enough signatures to send the issue to voters. The City Council, following the legal opinion of City Attorney Susan Segal, previously had voted to prevent the proposal from reaching the ballot. A majority of council members said they believed the issue was not a proper subject for a charter amendment, the only type of action allowed to be put to a direct vote.

In her opinion, Robiner wrote that the city's interpretation of the language in its own charter — the document that outlines the framework for municipal government — was too narrow. Segal had argued that only a limited number of issues could be considered as charter amendments, while other questions would require the council to vote directly to create or change an ordinance.

Attorneys for the wage-amendment supporters, meanwhile, contended that a wage increase would amount to a matter of the general health and welfare of the city and should be considered as part of the charter. Robiner agreed, noting that no previous legal cases have validated the city's arguments.

"The city also argues that by not providing initiative and referendum power to its citizens, Minneapolis has chosen to deny its citizens the power to legislate on issues affecting the general welfare," she wrote. "This argument … is not supported by reported case law."

On a separate charter amendment proposal also blocked by the city — which would have required police officers to carry professional liability insurance — Robiner sided with the City Council. Council members had voted to keep that issue from the ballot because of potential conflicts with state laws requiring cities to cover employees in legal matters.

Organizers with the Committee for Professional Policing, which submitted the proposal, could not be reached for comment.

City appeal ahead?

City officials did not say whether they planned to appeal the judge's ruling on the minimum wage proposal, but they applauded the decision on the police insurance plan.

"We are pleased with the court's conclusion on the police liability insurance proposal, but respectfully disagree with the ruling on the minimum wage proposal," Segal said in a statement. "We are conferring with city leadership to determine the city's response."

The city would need to appeal within a few days. The deadline to submit items for the ballot to Hennepin County is Aug. 26.

Barring a higher court reversal, the judge's decision means supporters of the higher wage, including the groups 15 Now Minnesota, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, will have just over two months to convince voters that Minneapolis' minimum wage should be among the highest in the nation. Only a handful of other cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have approved a $15 minimum wage.

Advocates said Monday that they are optimistic. They pointed to poll results they released last week that showed 68 percent of 400 voters surveyed said they'd vote in favor of a $15 minimum wage.

Some council support

Supporters — including Council Members Alondra Cano and Cam Gordon, the only two council members who voted to put the minimum wage issue on the ballot — cheered the judge's decision in social media posts. Council Member Andrew Johnson, who had said he believed the city had legal standing to put the police insurance proposal on the ballot, but not the minimum wage amendment, issued an apology.

"With the information I had at the time I felt it was clear that the minimum wage amendment was not legal and would not hold up in court, but it would appear that the majority and I were wrong, and for that I am sorry," he wrote on Facebook.

Read more from the Star-Tribune.

Coney Island Wahlburgers franchisee sued by ex-workers over alleged wage theft

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From Fox News:

Five former Wahlburgers employees filed a class-action lawsuit in New York federal court Thursday, claiming the restaurant chain founded by actors Mark and Donnie Wahlberg and their brother, Chef Paul Wahlberg, failed to pay them the proper minimum wage and routinely pocketed the tips that were supposed to go to the waitstaff.

The ex-employees, who worked at the Wahlburgers franchise in Coney Island, Brooklyn, said they also didn’t receive a $3,000 tip that was left for them by cast of “Blue Bloods,” the TV series starring Donnie Wahlberg, at the end of a private party.

Since the Coney Island franchise, the first Wahlburgers in New York, opened last September, it has been “rampant with wage theft and violations of federal and state labor law,” the lawsuit states.

The ex-employees claim they and other workers were paid “for significantly fewer hours than they actually worked”; that they didn’t receive time-and-a-half for overtime; and that the restaurant imposed “an unlawful tip pool upon the tipped employees that required them to pay a share of their gratuities to non-tipped kitchen employees,” according to a report on Yahoo! TV.

The lawsuit also claims management regularly shaved “approximately five to ten hours of compensable time” a week from the employees through actions such as punching them out for meal times that they didn’t take, and by routinely telling them to start work without punching in.

A Wahlburgers spokesperson, in a statement to TheWrap, said the company plans to “bring this matter to a resolution.”

“Wahlburgers is all about family, and treating people fairly and with respect is at the heart of our brand,” the company said in a statement. “Since this situation came to light today, we’ve been working with [Wahlburgers franchisee] Coney Burgers to better understand the circumstances and help bring this matter to resolution.”

Read more from Fox News.

McDonald's Could Be Held Liable for Franchise Wage Theft, Federal Judge Rules

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Steve Rhodes/Flickr

From The District Sentinel:

by Sam Knight

A federal judge in California allowed class action wage theft litigation to proceed against McDonald's, on the grounds that a jury could find it guilty of negligence.

Judge Richard Seeborg said Tuesday that the lawsuit against the corporation may continue under the "ostensible agency theory."

The doctrine holds an actor responsible for the fault of another, if victims reasonably believe that the perpetrator committed wrongdoing in the employ of said actor.

The case involves McDonald's franchise co-owners, Bobby and Carol Haynes, who operate eight restaurants in Northern California. Leading the class are three women who work in one of their Oakland restaurants: Guadalupe Salazar, Judith Zarate, and Genoveva Lopez.

"Looking at the record, there is considerable evidence, albeit subject to dispute, that McDonalds caused plaintiffs reasonably to believe Haynes was acting as its agent," Seeborg ruled.

"[P]laintiffs submit they sought employment at McDonalds because it 'is a large corporation with many stores around the world,' 'would involve a steady job in a safe environment,' and 'would make sure [they were] paid and treated correctly, because it is a large corporation with standardized systems,'" he also said.

Seeborg also noted that the plaintiffs "believed both they and Haynes worked for McDonalds" (emphasis his).

Retail corporations have absolved themselves of much legal responsibility for working conditions they heavily influence by arguing that they are not "joint employers." They simply oversee a system of franchises and contractors, without directly impacting terms of employment, their lawyers often successfully argue.

Read more from The District Sentinel.

OSHA Starts Crack Down on Southern Poultry Plants, But Will Non-Union Workers Talk?

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From Payday Report:

by Mike Elk

Earlier this month, we reported on a groundbreaking Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation issued against a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in northern Florida for failing to allow workers to seek outside medical help after getting hurt on the job. This week, OSHA issued another groundbreaking citation, this time against Tyson Foods. Citations like these could become much more common for the industry, as OSHA has launched a special program to crack down on workplace safety abuses in the Southern poultry industry.

On August 16, OSHA fined a Tyson’s chicken plant in Center, Texas $263,498 for two repeated violations and 15 serious safety violations. The investigation of the plant stemmed from a worker having their finger amputated earlier this year by an unguarded conveyor belt. The citation was the second that the plant received this summer.

“Tyson Foods must do much more to prevent disfiguring injuries like this one from happening,” said Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, in a statement accompanying the citation. “As one of the nation’s largest food suppliers, it should set an example for workplace safety rather than drawing multiple citations from OSHA for ongoing safety failures.”

Workplace safety advocates were quick to praise the decision by OSHA to crack down on the poultry industry.  

“The terrible injury and numerous safety violations at a Texas chicken processing plant confirm what some Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) affiliated worker centers have been saying for years: cheap chicken comes at a high cost for the workers who process poultry,” stated Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director Reverend Doug Mork.

The citation comes two weeks after OSHA increased their maximum fines, with those for repeat violations increasing from $70,000 to $125,000. It also comes two weeks after OSHA issued a landmark citation against a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in northern Florida for failing to allow workers to seek timely outside medical help for workplace injuries.

“As with the Pilgrim’s Pride case, it is clear that OSHA is taking a methodical approach to uncovering violations in the poultry industry – at least for the relatively small number of plants that they are able to inspect,” said Change to Win Health and Safety Director Eric Frumin. “With the new maximum penalties, perhaps now the plant managers and the corporate executives who direct them will finally start paying real attention to these abysmal conditions – instead of repeatedly violating basic job safety rules.”

While both the Tyson and the Pilgrim’s Pride citation stem from complaints by unionized poultry workers, OSHA seems to be trying to get more non-union workers to speak about their working conditions. This year, the agency launched regional emphasis programs out of its Dallas-based Region 6 office and its Atlanta-based Region 4 office that are designed specifically to focus on inspecting poultry plants – non-union and union alike.

However, Debbie Berkowitz, former Chief of Staff at OSHA and a Senior Fellow at the National Employment Law Project, says that all too often workers in non-union plants are afraid to speak up.

“The reason OSHA finds the violations in union plants is because workers feel secure in talking to OSHA. They know the union will protect them from illegal retaliation,” Berkowitz said. “The thoroughness and effectiveness of an OSHA inspection really in most cases depends on being able to talk to workers. In non-union plants workers are terrified of talking to OSHA for fear of retaliation.”

Workplace safety activists say this is why more education of poultry workers, particularly those who are non-union, is needed.

“Four poultry corporations – including Tyson Foods – control 60% of the U.S. market. We urge Tyson Foods and its competitors to commit to a comprehensive evaluation of safety standards and the fair treatment of working people at all poultry processing plants,” said Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director Mork. “As the nation’s appetite for chicken grows, the safety, dignity, and respect of the workers who produce this chicken are non-negotiable rights that must be protected at any cost.”

Read more from Payday Report

Waiters Score Big Win Against Industry Effort To Pocket Their Tips

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Steve Rhodes/Flickr

From The Huffington Post:

by David Jamieson

Pam Walter took a job as a banquet server at the Hilton Garden Inn in Missoula, Montana, in 2006. At first, she was paid an hourly wage plus a share of customers’ tips. But Walter said those tips didn’t last long.

The gratuities earned by servers like herself at several Montana hotels were renamed “service” or “setup” fees, according to a class-action lawsuit Walter filed last year. The hotels continued to add these automatic charges to their customers’ bills, but instead of dispersing the cash among the servers, the house started pocketing it.

Now, that money is finally making its way back to Walter and her fellow servers. Earlier this month, they reached a $4 million settlement with the hotels’ owners and a common subcontractor, according to a settlement agreement approved by a Montana state judge. The lawsuit involves more than 500 workers.

Many of them will receive just a thousand bucks or so, but some will recoup as much as $80,000, depending on how long they worked for the hotels.

“We’re very happy,” said Jason Armstrong, one of the lawyers representing the servers. “The named plaintiffs were very brave in putting their names on the complaint. Any time you go up against your employer you’re putting yourself at risk. They held their [employers’] feet to the fire.”

The Huffington Post first reported on this dispute last year, when a hotel worker in Bozeman, Montana, filed an unrelated lawsuit against the Hilton Garden Inn there. Laurie Zabawa said the hotel switched to “service” fees in 2012, after it outsourced the banquet work to a subcontractor called Gateway Hospitality Group. The policy change meant the workers themselves no longer received the gratuities attached to banquet bills, she said. As banquet manager, Zabawa was tasked with enforcing the new policy.

“It was awful,” Zabawa told HuffPost at the time. “Just imagine working there with those people for years. They were my family. It was horrible to go through, and I had no options.”

What happened at Zabawa’s hotel is surprisingly common these days. Many businesses in the service industry have pocketed as “fees” the money that customers likely thought they paid as tips for frontline workers. In 2010, catering employees who worked the U.S. Open in New York accused the concessions company of swallowing a 21 percent fee that was tacked onto customers’ bills. The workers said the service fee looked to customers like a gratuity. They settled the lawsuit for $600,000.

As HuffPost reported in 2011, Yankee Stadium was accused of pulling a similar move. Beer and hot dog vendors said the stadium’s concessionaire, Legends Hospitality, was tacking a 20 percent service fee onto the drink and food orders in the stadium’s luxury boxes, while giving the vendors only 4 to 6 percent in commission. The difference, they said, went to Legends, which at the time was jointly owned by the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and Goldman Sachs.

Big pizza chains have gotten into the act, too. As HuffPost reported in 2014, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Domino’s now commonly add nominal “delivery fees” to the tabs for delivery orders. The fees, which range from $1.50 to $3 a pop, don’t go to the drivers ― even though many customers assume they do.

Adding such service fees allows companies to raise their real prices without raising their sticker prices. By implying the fees are tips for services rendered, they leave customers with the impression that the money goes to the workers. To critics like Armstrong, the practice cheats both workers and customers.

Montana is one of a handful of states that have tried to solve the problem by mandating that any such fees go to workers. The state law under which Walter sued her hotel defines a service fee as “an arbitrary fixed charge added to the customer’s bill by an employer in lieu of a tip.” Such a fee “must be distributed directly to the nonmanagement employee preparing or serving the food or beverage or to any other employee involved in related services.”

Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Washington state have their own laws addressing service fees. The Washington law allows businesses to charge a service fee but requires them to note on the receipt exactly how much the employee will receive.

In the Walter case, the hotels and the subcontractor agreed to cough up the employees’ shares of the original gratuities, plus a surcharge in penalties. Of the $4 million settlement, around $1 million goes toward the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

Read more from The Huffington Post

#MoralMonday Rally For Locked Out Green Island Honeywell Workers

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From WAMC:

by Dave Lucas

Today marked the 99th day 41 workers were locked out of their jobs at Honeywell Aerospace in Green Island after they refused to accept dramatic increases to their health care costs and the elimination of their pensions. There was support and solidarity present at a noon picket line rally outside the Honeywell building.

The striking Green Island workers are members of United Auto Workers Local 1508. They produce braking systems and wheels for commercial and military aircraft. They've been replaced by strikebreakers hired to keep the factory running.  Reverend Emily McNeil is acting director of the New York State Labor-Religion coalition:  "We're here today for a #moralmonday rally in support of the workers who've been locked out from the Honeywell Aerospace plant here in Green Island since the beginning of May. And they've been locked out because they decided to reject an offer of a new contract that would have eliminated their pensions and really drastically increased their health care costs. And once they asked to keep negotiating, the company locked them out."

Tim Vogt has been at Honeywell for nearly three decades. He is president of United Auto Workers Local 1508.   "Honeywell has taken years, decades of collective bargaining and put a red strike through it, and just want their own policy, their own language. They're taking away everything from us. Retiree health care, they're taking away pensions, they're taking away cost of living allowances, sub-benefits, no more personal days and not enough of a wage increase, 2.5 percent wage increase for three of the five years. That's not nearly enough to help us."

Mark Emanation of the Capital District Area Labor Council addressed the crowd:   "Honeywell also is the people that have poisoned the families up in Hoosick Falls. 30 years of polluting with PFOA in Hoosick Falls, and how many years did they worked with asbestos here and have these workers with asbestos and now saying 'we're not gonna have survivor benefits, we're not gonna pay health care for pensioners,' after all those things. Honeywell doesn't pay taxes. In fact, we give tax subsidies to Honeywell, and the amount of money that Honeywell has, that they save on the taxes, they put into SuperPACs to buy elected officials and politicians where they put in their pockets like nickels and dimes."

Honeywell did not respond to requests for comment.   The faith, union and community leaders in attendance say they want one simple thing: that Honeywell end the lockout and negotiate. A company spokesman told the Troy Record in June that the last contract offer was a responsible one for the employees to take.

Read more from WAMC