Group maintaining fight for fair labor
Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com December 20, 2011 4:00PM
Elvis Mendez (below) and Tory Moore (right), both organizers, work in the Warehouse Workers for Justice office in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 21, 2012 8:00AM
JOLIET — The cozy Warehouse Workers for Justice office buzzed with activity earlier this month as volunteers and employees gathered to tackle the day’s tasks.
A pot of freshly brewed coffee fueled their efforts. Group members chatted while working on computers and laptops and legal aides assisted workers with complaints.
WWJ came to town three years ago to improve working conditions for Will County warehouse workers. The group is staying put until all the workers are paid fair wages by the temp agencies that employ them, said organizer Abraham Mwaura.
Workers complain that they’re paid by containers they unload and not by the hour so they’re making less than minimum wage. They also say they’re not getting overtime owed to them.
In the past two years, WWJ has filed nine lawsuits and numerous complaints with state and federal labor departments in attempt to get employees money they are owed.
Seven of the lawsuits claim violations of the wage and hour law and the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services act, said Christopher Williams of the Workers’ Law Office in Chicago, which represents WWJ. Two of the class action lawsuits have been settled. The two other lawsuits claim discrimination and a hostile work environment, Williams said.
In its most recent legal action, WWJ filed a class action lawsuit last month in federal court in Chicago against Eclipse Advantage, an Orlando, Fla.-based staffing company. The lawsuit alleges Eclipse has not paid about 100 workers for time they are owed for working in the Walmart warehouse in Elwood.
The lawsuit also claims the company did not pay overtime or inform the temp workers of their rates of pay. A spokesman for Eclipse Advantage denied the claims.
“Any allegations of unlawful pay practices are unfounded and will be defended vigorously,” said company attorney Joseph Blitch.
About 2,000 miles west of here, Warehouse Workers United is waging a similar fight in the Inland Empire, which is a cluster of warehouses in southern California. In October and November, the state of California fined Premier Warehousing Ventures and Impact Logistics Inc. more than $1 million for not maintaining employee time records and failing to give employees itemized wage statements, the same infractions WWJ is alleging in Illinois.
Premier and Impact staffed a warehouse run by Schneider Logistics for Walmart.
Premier also staffs the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, and it recently filed a mass layoff notice with Illinois saying it would lay off 77 employees at the warehouse in January.
Premier is ending its contract with Schneider, said Jim Pittman, chief operating officer for the company.
“It’s got nothing to do with California,” he said. “We’re just not making any money.”
WWJ would like to get state and federal labor departments to enforce employment rules here. Also, worker reforms should be tied to any subsidies or tax breaks that are given to companies to locate here, and caps should be placed on the number of temps that can be hired, Mwaura said.
The group wants to work with state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet, on legislation that will improve worker conditions to prevent abuses. It’s too time consuming to file lawsuit after lawsuit seeking back wages and other remedies for individual workers, Mwaura said.
WWJ also is looking for larger quarters because it has outgrown its current location in the Sacred Heart Parish at 329 S. Ottawa St.
Without reforms, nothing will change, Mwaura said. Workers who try to organize into unions will be terminated and another temp agency will be hired.
“It’s union avoidance,” he said. “Very deep, sophisticated union avoidance.”
Raise the floor
All of the companies targeted by WWJ have denied any illegal activity. Local economic development officials say there are some “bad apples” in the industry but not all are abusing workers.
“If there are temp agencies or employment firms breaking the law, they should be called on it,” said John Greuling, president and CEO of Will County Center for Economic Development. “The CED does not condone any kind of employment agency that’s not following the rules and regulations when it comes to work for labor. It’s not like we want to see this happen.”
Mwaura sees widespread mistreatment of people who just want to make a living wage. WWJ is going to stick around until there’s a more permanent solution, he said.
“We have to reinforce the foundation of the whole industry, then raise the floor. It can’t be done piecemeal.”
For more information on WWJ go to www.warehouseworker.org or call 888-344-6432.