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Southern California warehouse operator faces new charges of workplace retaliation

October 18, 2012
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FairWarningPosted with permission from FairWarning.org:

Months after settling complaints of unfair labor practices, a big warehouse operator in Southern California is facing new charges accusing it of illegally firing or reducing the hours of workers who took part in a strike and protest march.

The latest charges, which come from more than 30 workers, are in a complaint submitted last week to the National Labor Relations Board. It takes aim at NFI, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based National Distribution Centers.

The complaint alleges that NFI’s warehouse in Mira Loma, a community in the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles, illegally punished workers who joined in a 15-day September job walkout. The workers were protesting what they said were unsafe working conditions and previous acts of employment retaliation.

 Also named in the complaint is WareStaff, an employment company that supplied many of the Mira Loma warehouse workers to NFI.

The charges stem from a long-running union campaign to organize hundreds of thousands of mostly low-wage workers in the supply chain for retailing giant Walmart. The effort is being coordinated by Warehouse Workers United, an organization launched in 2007 by Change to Win, a national coalition of unions with about five million members.

As FairWarning reported in March in a story on alleged labor abuses in the Inland Empire’s vast warehouse industry, most of the workers are directly hired as temporary employees by intermediary firms such as WareStaff. The arrangement is meant to shield WalMart from liability for safety and wage law violations and frustrate unionizing efforts, worker advocates say.

NFI spokeswoman Kathleen Hessert said the company is reviewing last week’s complaint to the National Labor relations board. She accused Warehouse Workers United of “distorting facts and misleading anyone who will listen.” NFI values its employees, Hessert said, and “just doesn’t do business this way.” WareStaff officials could not be reached.

Without admitting liability, NFI in May settled previous retaliation claims by six workers at three warehouses in Chino, Calif. As part of the settlement, NFI agreed to rehire most  of the workers and provide back pay, said Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United.

Other complaints of unfair labor practices, filed in July and August against NFI and WareStaff, are also pending before the labor relations board.

The workers bringing the latest charges include Andrew Sims, a 23-year-old father of four who said he makes $8 an hour at the Mira Loma NFI warehouse. Sims, who has worked at the warehouse about six months, unloads goods from containers that arrive from Asia at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He also loads boxes onto trucks bound for WalMart stores.

Sims said his hours were slashed after he participated in the September strike, which included a six-day, 50-mile protest march from the Inland Empire to downtown Los Angeles.

Last week, Sims said, he was given only four hours of work by WareStaff – down from an average of about 35 hours a week previously.

Warehouse workers in the Inland Empire have also recently filed two sets of safety complaints with the California Division of Occupation Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, regarding NFI’s Mira Loma warehouse. The complaints allege hazards such as blocked emergency exits and lack of safety training for operators of forklifts and other equipment. Cal/OSHA officials declined to comment on the status of the cases.

In yet another case, Cal/OSHA in January charged NFI and the hiring agency Tri-State Staffing with more than 60 safety violations at four warehouses in Chino. NFI and Tri-Staff are appealing the citations and $256,445 in proposed penalties.

The flurry of union-organizing activity in the Inland Empire has extended to warehouse and distribution hubs in other parts of the country. Sims, along with other warehouse workers from Illinois, met earlier this week with Walmart management at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to discuss working conditions.

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman said the company plans to respond to the workers and pass on their information to their employers.

“We continue to take this matter seriously because it’s important to us that workers in our supply chain are treated with dignity and respect,” he said.

Separately, about 90 Walmart workers scattered across more than 12 urban areas, including the Los Angeles area, staged a strike against the retailer last week over working conditions.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong number of workers involved in the latest complaint against NFI. The total is more than 30, not 26.

About FairWarning

FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit, online news organization focused on issues of safety, health and government and business accountability.

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