Monday, March 22, 2004

The Mexican government has encouraged thousands of Mexican nationals, including many illegal aliens, who worked as janitors for California’s largest supermarket chains to join a class-action lawsuit demanding millions of dollars in additional pay.

Officials at the Mexican Consulate in San Diego urged workers at a news conference last week to come forward and support a pending suit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), which accuses the markets of discriminating against the workers because they were employed as independent contractors.

The Mexican government offered its help to the plaintiffs in finding Mexican nationals who are eligible to join the lawsuit, which seeks redress for back wages, overtime and health care benefits.

The targeted markets are Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions and Safeway. The suit also names Encompass Staffing Services and Building One, contracting firms that provided cleaning crews to the supermarkets.

MALDEF, the Service Employees International Union and a California law firm, Talamantes, Villegas & Carrera, have been at the forefront of efforts to locate thousands of Mexican nationals to take part in the suit “to reserve their rights and any potential monetary claims they might have.”

A network of Mexican consulate offices in the United States and throughout Mexico has offered to locate eligible workers in both countries.

Filed two years ago in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the suit is scheduled to be tried before a jury beginning June 15. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, appointed in 2002 by President Bush, has said the workers’ immigration status at the time of their employment is not relevant to the question of whether they were compensated fairly.

The suit, with 700 named plaintiffs, covers workers employed from 1994 to 2003 — many of whom are thought to have returned to Mexico. Judge Anderson has set an April 16 deadline for additional workers to join in the complaint.

“This lawsuit is important because it involves large numbers of our nationals and because it insists that their rights be respected, regardless of their legal status,” Mexican Consul General Luis Cabrera Cuaron in San Diego said at the press conference.

Attorneys for the markets did not return calls for comment, but previously have denied any wrongdoing.

Steve Reyes, a plaintiffs’ attorney, said it was “time for the supermarkets to face the fact that immigrant workers who seek to enforce their rights as employees have legal and moral support.”

The Mexican nationals were employed as independent contractors to clean, polish and wax floors, shelves, windows and checkout stands under the supervision of store managers.

The 43-page suit said that the markets had employed janitors directly, paying them “lawful wages,” but that beginning in 1994, the stores “implemented a scheme to evade responsibility” for wages and job benefits “by pretending to hire janitors indirectly through a contractor while retaining control over the work” they performed.

The suit said the markets “reaped millions of dollars in annual labor costs savings” by paying less than the law required, failing to compensate for overtime or provide health care benefits, and forcing them to work seven days a week.

The suit alleges that the supermarkets paid the janitors in cash or by personal checks without payroll tax or Social Security deductions and did not pay premiums for insurance.

The plaintiffs seek payment of back wages, overtime and benefits in a nine-year period and forfeiture of “all profits acquired by means of any unfair business practices.”

No specific dollar amount is mentioned, although attorneys and others familiar with the case said the total likely is in the millions of dollars.

In November, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, was targeted by a federal grand jury in New Jersey on charges it knowingly used contractors who hired illegal aliens as janitors.

The investigation began two weeks after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 300 illegal aliens employed as janitors at Wal-Mart stores in 21 states, including two in Maryland and eight in Virginia.

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