Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Warehouse workers’

Wal-Mart Warehouse Workers Fight for the Future of Work

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Workers responsible for moving an estimated $1 trillion worth of goods a year through the global economy are paid low wages, often denied breaks and basic protective gear, and are employed primarily through temp agencies.

Outside the largest Walmart distribution center in the country, moving the products of the world’s largest private employer, a group of striking workers are asking for small changes they say will make an immeasurable difference to their working conditions. Warehouse workers in Elwood, Illinois, have been on strike for more than two weeks, calling for the subcontractors that employ them on behalf of Walmart to provide shin pads and dust masks – and to listen to their grievances around working conditions.

Early this week, workers forced the warehouse to close early after more than 200 people rallied around the suburban distribution center. A planned civil disobedience action took a surprising turn for many of the assembled protesters when riot police equipped with a sound cannon came to arrest the 17 clergy and warehouse workers blocking a road near the distribution center.

The majority of jobs created since the recession first hit mirror those the warehouse workers do: temporary, low-wage, no-benefit and high-risk. But the strike is also part of a larger trend of workers standing up to the Walmart behemoth – from the California warehouse workers on strike earlier this month to the three women that filed the latest sexual discrimination lawsuit against the company this week.

“The whole warehouse industry is built on temp poverty jobs. Every day, workers tell their sad story of getting ripped off in these warehouses, of sexual discrimination, of racial discrimination,” said Father Raymond Lescher, priest at Sacred Heart Church in Joliet, Illinois, and a member of the Warehouse Workers for Justice Board. “We’ve tried to work with politicians at the county, state and local level, but we haven’t gotten to first base. So, we said we’ve got to escalate this.”

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

“There are rat feces, bat feces … it’s unbearable”

The windowless Elwood warehouse about two hours outside Chicago sits surrounded by chain link fence and empty fields. Warehouse Workers for Justice, the group helping to organize the workers, says Chicago transports half the nation’s rail freight, and seven interstate highways cross the Chicago region. It is the third-largest container port in the world, and almost $1 trillion worth of goods pass through the area annually.  It has the additional distinction of being home to one of the largest concentrations of warehouses on the planet

“If you didn’t make it yourself, it probably came through one of these warehouses,” says Leah Fried, an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice. Fried told Labor Notes that the Elwood location is the largest warehouse by far – 70 percent of imported products that Walmart sells make their way through its doors.

While the logistics industry working the warehouses is becoming increasingly lucrative, workers on the ground face a different reality.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

Chris Tucker, a 22-year-old resident of the neighboring suburb of Joliet, pays more than half of the income he earns as a warehouse worker on rent. With only $1300 dollars a month coming in from his job, the $850 a month to keep a roof over his head “isn’t going to cut it” for a living wage, said Tucker.

But that is only one of the reasons Tucker joined 29 other workers in walking off the job on September 15. He also says that the lack of dust masks isn’t good for his lungs, working without shin pads leaves him and others with constant bruises, and the lack of breaks during work makes the conditions dangerous.

Tucker was employed by RoadLink, the “largest private, independent North American Intermodal Logistics service provider,” according to its web site, during the three months he was at the Elmwood warehouse. Though the strikes are targeting Walmart, whose products they move, most people are employed by a series of subcontractors. Tucker has been working in warehouses for two years – along with RoadLink, he says he has worked under Velocity Logistics Inc., PLS Logistics Services, Staffing Logistics and Shamrock Logistics Operations.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

Warehouse Workers for Justice estimates that 70 percent of warehouses in the Chicago land area employ temporary labor. The group also says that Will County, where Elmwood is located, has the highest concentration of temp agencies in Illinois

The workers have filed 11 lawsuits in the past three-and-a-half years, according to Father Lescher. Most recently, a lawsuit filed against RoadLink on September 20 in the US District Court of Northern Illinois accused the company of wage theft and not paying overtime.

A class action lawsuit filed by California Walmart warehouse workers against Schneider Logistics sheds light on the role that contractors play, showing that they set payment rates and, in the case of Schneider, set work quotas for the warehouse.

RoadLink and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment from Truthout, but Walmart told the Huffington Post it took the workers allegations “very seriously” but the complaints where “unfounded.

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

On the Picket Line 

Joining the Walmart strikers on the picket line were workers from Sensata Technologies Inc., a company owned by Bain Capital and now in the final stages of moving its production to China. Workers have set up a tent camp outside the factory to protest the closings and the fact that many of them may not get their full severance packages.

Bonnie Borman worked with Sensata for more than 20 years in Freeport, Illinois, as a production technician. Now she’s not sure what she’ll do next. “All that’s left here is just minimum-wage, low-paying jobs that you can’t support a family on,” said Borman, who has already begun training her Chinese replacement. At her current job she makes $15 an hour, a wage she is worried she won’t be able to find wherever she goes to work next. “I’m kind of in that limbo place where I keep thinking: What am I going to do?”

Walmart Warehouse Workers.(Photo: Yana Kunichoff)

The world’s biggest private employer isn’t very appealing to Borman, she said.

It took Jerome Synowicz, a Walmart worker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, eight years to move his salary from $7 an hour to his current $12. “They get you a check and it’s nothing. It’s very hard to make it go around,” he said.

Copyright, Truth-Out. May not be reprinted without permission. Originally posted on Truth-Out on October 3, 2012. 

About the Authors: Jesse Menendez is the host of Vocalo on Chicago Public Radio’s WBEZ. He is also host of The Music Vox on Vocalo radio, which airs Monday-Friday from 6 PM-8 PM Central, and Live From Studio 10, which airs every Wednesday at 8 PM Central. Yana Kunichoff is an assistant editor at Truth-Out.

Lawsuit Sheds Light on Murky and Dangerous Warehouse Sector

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Working In These Times has frequently covered the warehousing industry and the way that complicated layers of different companies using, owning, operating and staffing warehouses make the sector ripe for labor abuse.

A motion for sanctions filed August 23 in a workers’ class action lawsuit against southern California Wal-Mart warehouses sheds more light on this structure and alleges that defendant Schneider Logistics failed to provide legally mandated evidence to avoid culpability for workers’ wages and working conditions.

Last October, workers affiliated with the group Warehouse Workers United filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. district court in California alleging labor law violations at Mira Loma warehouses operated solely for Wal-Mart stores. The lawsuit names Schneider Logistics Inc. (SLI) and its subsidiary Schneider Logistics Transloading and Distribution (STLD) along with the companies Impact and Premier, which hired people to staff the warehouses. Schneider took over operation of the warehouses in 2006.

The initial complaint said:

Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated to recover the wages that defendants stole — and are continuing to steal — from them in violation of federal and California law. Plaintiffs also seek redress for other consequences of defendants’ unlawful conspiracy, including defendants’ wrongful scheme to hide and then cover up the extent of their wrongdoing by failing to keep mandatory payroll records, falsifying records of hours worked and compensation owed, and concealing, denying and/or misrepresenting to the workers the amount of their earnings and on what basis these earnings were calculated.

A key question is whether Schneider or STLD directly employed–and is therefore responsible for the working conditions of–the plaintiffs, including lead plaintiff Everardo Carrillo. The plaintiffs allege that Schneider is their “joint employer” along with the other defendants.

Schneider Logistics initially argued that it had “no connection with or responsibility for the operation, oversight, or supervision” of the workers at the Mira Loma warehouses, as quoted in the recent motion. It notes that Schneider Logistics Secretary-Treasurer Amy Schilling signed a sworn declaration saying the company had “no business or contractual relationship” with co-defendants Impact and Premier. And the motion alleges that Schneider sought to continue this image by failing to turn over documents during the discovery process that would have indicated otherwise.

In April Schneider attorneys responded to a discovery request without actually looking for the requested documents, according to the motion. In other words, they allegedly were either sloppy or intentionally avoided turning over evidence to which the plaintiffs have a legal right.

This became clear when documents turned over by Impact and Premier included highly relevant Schneider documents which Schneider attorneys had specifically said did not exist. The motion notes:

Schneider has now produced thousands of documents it previously claimed did not exist, including over 12,100 pages of personnel files it maintained for the Impact and Premier class members (whom it claims not to jointly employ), and the workplace rules and training requirements it imposed on all class members.

The plaintiffs say the new documents show that “Schneider’s top managers knowingly made material false statements” to the court, including claims that the warehouse employees are not subject to Schneider employment policies and that Schneider does not keep personnel files on them or set productivity quotas. The documents showed that Schilling herself signed contracts with Premier and Impact, on behalf of STLD and “its affiliates.” Meanwhile, Schilling is also vice president and controller of Schneider National, the parent company of the other Schneider groups, which actually negotiated the contracts with Impact and Premier.

Once it was clear that Schneider did indeed have contracts with Impact and Premier, General Manager Vince Redgrave told the court that the contracts gave Schneider no say over work terms or conditions. The court ordered that Schneider actually produce the contracts, and when it did, as the motion says, “they proved the exact opposite of what Vince Redgrave had testified.”

The federal district judge, Christina Snyder, wrote in a preliminary injunction ruling that the “contracts dictate nearly every material term of plaintiffs’ employment including how Impact and PWV (Premier) must conduct pre-employment screening and new employment training.”

The documents also showed that, contrary to Redgrave’s previous testimony, Schneider did set specific productivity quotas for the warehouse workers and in fact complained to Premier when the rate of cases unloaded per hour dropped. Schneider officials also talked about how to remedy Impact’s “low productivity levels.”

Warehouse worker groups have long argued that unrealistic and escalating productivity quotas are among the things that lead to high chronic and acute injury rates in warehouses. In July, Warehouse Workers United filed a complaint with California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration office.

The recent motion also alleges that Schneider or its attorneys did not order employees to preserve emails relevant to the case, as is standard required legal procedure. It says the company has an automatic delete email function for emails from the Mira Loma warehouses, meaning emails are deleted automatically after a short period of time, and employees also have “absolute discretion” over whether to save or delete emails. The motion says Schneider was slow to issue a memo instating a “litigation hold”—meaning employees should preserve relevant communications. And it alleges even after such a memo was issued, Schneider never enforced it.

The motion also alleges that Schneider destroyed and denied the existence of security camera footage that would aid the plaintiffs’ case. The motion demands that Schneider turn over video footage and also a log of any video that has been destroyed since October 2011.

The motion asks that the court make note of Schneider’s alleged misconduct, tell Schneider that further misconduct will result in sanctions, and provide relevant attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs. It notes that the court could also decide to inform a jury of Schneider’s false statements and other discovery violations, and asks that the court establish a “rebuttal presumption” that Schneider is indeed a “joint employer” of the plaintiffs.

Overall, the lawsuit is part of WWU’s and individual workers’ ongoing campaign to improve conditions in warehouses and shed light on the complicated employment structure that allows major companies like Wal-Mart to benefit from the low-paid, dangerous work of a largely temporary workforce.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 4, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Warehouse Workers File Second Lawsuit Against Chicago-Area Wal-Mart Contractors

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

kari-lydersenCHICAGO—Last week, the Chicago-based group Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) filed its second class action lawsuit this year against an agency responsible for staffing Wal-Mart’s warehouse in suburban Elwood.

The suit, filed May 18, charges the staffing company SIMOS Insourcing Solutions with legal violations including not fulfilling promises made to workers as part of the terms of their hiring. Among other things, workers said they were offered paid vacations that were never granted.

According to a WWJ press release, the company “required employees to incur fees to get their paychecks and failed to give the warehouse workers critical information about their pay, benefits and other terms of their employment as required by Illinois law.”

The new class action lawsuit is part of a larger campaign to force staffing agencies to give workers written proof of their contracts, their wages and the way their pay is calculated. Wage theft is reportedly rampant in the industry, but often hard to prove since workers are given little or no documentation of what they have been promised, how many hours they have worked, how much they are paid and in some cases who they are even technically working for.

In March, the group filed another class action lawsuit alleging that the Reliable Staffing agency, which hired workers for the Elwood Wal-Mart warehouse, paid them much less than promised, in part through manipulating or changing the terms of a piece-meal pay schedule.

As I previously blogged:

“The check stub is a fiction – their check stub could show they worked 36 hours when they really worked 72 hours,” said attorney Chris Williams. That’s why, Williams said, it’s so important the workers are able to demand their billing records under the state day labor services act.

Also earlier this month workers at a Kraft-Cadbury warehouse in the suburb of Joliet filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about alleged discrimination by the firm Schenker Logistics. Filing such a complaint is the first step in filing an employment discrimination lawsuit, if the EEOC decides not to investigate itself.

These legal actions are part of a multi-faceted campaign to hold staffing companies legally accountable for their behavior; and also build greater public awareness of rampant labor rights issues in the warehouse industry; and to embolden workers to speak out about these issues. The group has not sued Wal-Mart, since the company argues it is not directly responsible for hiring and wage and hour issues in its warehouses. SIMOS is based in Georgia and promises to slash labor costs for clients like Wal-Mart. The company’s website says:

Ultimately, our goal is to drive constant improvements in cost, quality, and on time delivery. SIMOS consistently delivers cost reduction programs our clients can actually see. On average, SIMOS customers save 10-25% in labor costs per unit while increasing their output by 15-30%.

It says it achieves these labor cost reductions by a “combination of engineering, workforce management and supervision.” Critics say this is just code for paying workers as little as possible, including by keeping them in the dark about the actual terms of their working agreements.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on May 23, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

A Day in the Life of a Warehouse Warrior

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

kari-lydersenIt’s a stifling hot day in June, and Tory Moore, 37, is pounding the pavement outside a currency exchange in Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb. Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words Warehouse Workers for Justice, sweating but full of energy, he paces back and forth while mopping his face with a yellow washcloth, looking for the tell-tale signs of warehouse workers.

After years working in warehouses himself, he knows what to look for: t-shirt, shorts, steel-toed boots or tennis shoes, safety goggles. When he sees a likely warehouse worker, he goes up with a friendly greeting and starts asking questions. He often chimes in with his own story – he was a temp for six years, even though he was working at the same warehouse – Del Monte Foods in Kankakee – the whole time.

Moore is one of the driving forces behind the study “Bad Jobs in Goods Movement,“ released by Warehouse Workers for Justice and the University of Illinois at Chicago last month. The campaign hired Moore through a program for low-income workers to help conduct the hundreds of surveys that form the basis for ongoing research into this booming but little-examined industry.

“Some people need two jobs just to make ends meet,” explains Moore. He asks one worker outside the currency exchange: “Are you doing anything else to make ends meet, cutting grass, cutting hair, tattooing?”

Since becoming involved with Warehouse Workers for Justice, Moore has developed his apparently natural talents as an organizer. He spoke to workers, organizers and academics involved with goods movement issues nationwide at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June.

Outside the currency exchange, he goes through the questions on the four-page blue survey earnestly and methodically, making sure he gets the spelling of people’s names right and reading off all the different types of discrimination they may have faced. When he gets to the question about whether someone prefers temporary or permanent work, his voice becomes more animated and he jumps in to answer for them, “Permanent right?”

Most quickly agree.

“You don’t get any justice if you’re a temp!” he says.

He  takes a quick break to check his messages – the only one is from a temp agency  asking if he can work tomorrow. On principle, he’s not going to take a one-day job, even though he needs the money. But he doesn’t want a refusal to prevent them from calling him with future longer-term offers. So he returns the phone call – politely saying, “I’ll be going out of town so I won’t be able to do it.”

“Well I lied to them, I’m not going to disqualify myself in case something else comes up. I’m not trying to be lazy, but, one day only! I’m not the one.”

Moore is acutely aware of the injustice in the industry, which relies heavily on temporary workers who labor for low wages with few or no benefits, paid sick days or chance for advancement. But in a desperate job market, some see this as normal, and are grateful for any work they can get.

One man, who doesn’t want his name used, is happy to have just gotten a new albeit temporary job.

“I thought that was the game! I didn’t know that was a problem. I thought that’s just the way it was. You work three months somewhere then they move you somewhere else,” the man says.

“That’s right, you’re getting $9.50, then they move you somewhere else where you’re making $8,” says Moore. “I never thought of it that way…”

Moore examines the man’s pay stub, and is enraged to see there’s no company name on it.

“There’s no damn name on here! That’s a problem! Say you need to sue them, you show this to a judge, there’s no name.”

The man rubs his face and looks worried. Moore asks what his new position is.

“I really don’t know, they don’t tell me anything, they just say, ‘See how many of these seasoning packets you can put in a box,’” says the man, who works 2 a.m. to noon. “I was just so happy to get the job.”

Moore tells his story about being a temp for six years, and being denied a loan and apartment rentals. ” Seriously?” says the man, looking crestfallen.  “So when I go look for an apartment I can’t go in and say this is the place I work?”

“A lot of people lost their cribs because the 89 days came and they got laid off instead of hired on. This is a million-dollar company and you’re working your ass off for 9.50,” Moore says.

The man stands absorbing it all for a few moments, asks a few more questions and receives impassioned answers from Moore. The man basically tells Moore that he has ruined his day, but he’s glad to know what he needs to watch out for. He agrees to answer Moore’s survey questions.

“I had to give my Martin Luther King speech,” Moore says, laughing and shaking his head. He wipes his brow again, then starts scanning the parking lot for more warehouse workers.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times Blog.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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