Warehouse workers in Southern California filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday alleging labor law violations against a Walmart contractor, the latest in a string of complaints lodged by workers in major U.S. distribution hubs.
In their proposed class action, three employees of Schneider Logistics claim the company devised an "unlawful scheme" to have them work overtime without paying them at overtime rates. The workers also say managers required them to take "voluntary" time off when they preferred to work and failed to give them rest breaks and legal wage statements.
Schneider manages various warehouses around the country that handle goods destined for Walmart stores. Last year workers at Schneider facilities in Illinois and the Inland Empire area of California filed lawsuits claiming that Schneider and its subcontractors shorted them on their wages. The California labor commissioner opened an investigation into labor practices at the warehouses in the Inland Empire and issued more than $1 million in fines to labor agencies that provide workers at the facilities.
Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, has not been named in any of the lawsuits or the state investigation.
The lawsuit filed Thursday revolves around an alleged schedule change that workers claim helped the company avoid overtime costs. California law allows an employer to switch from the typical eight-hour, five-day schedule to a 10-hour, four-day "alternative" schedule if workers consent to the change through an election. Under the latter schedule, an employer does not have to pay overtime for hours worked beyond eight but less than 10 in a single day.
Elizabeth Gutierrez, one of the employees named in the lawsuit, claimed in an interview with The Huffington Post that the warehouse workers were told they would save money on gas and have more time with their families under the alternative workweek. She also said the meetings involving the apparent schedule change were held in English, though the majority of the workforce speaks only Spanish.
After the schedule change, Gutierrez said, her hours became less reliable and her paycheck shrank. She claims that lesser-paid workers supplied by temp labor agencies started to get more time as she and her direct-hire coworkers lost hours.
"They explained to us we’d have an election on this new sort of way of doing work. They told us this was something that would be really good for us," said Gutierrez, who earns $17 an hour working as a "picker" at the warehouse, fetching products for shipment. "It wasn't a good thing. The company didn’t fulfill its promise to give us fulltime work ... Sometimes I would be told to stop after six or eight hours in a day, while the agency workers would stay and work longer hours."
In a statement to the Huffington Post, a spokeswoman for Schneider wrote, "We have a valid alternative work schedule, one adopted for the convenience of our workers who prefer to work 4-day work weeks to avoid having an extra commute which would be required if they worked five 8-hour days. We’re confident that we’ve complied with the law."
The use of temporary workers has become common in American warehouses, particularly in the Inland Empire, home to Gutierrez's facility, and the Will County area of Illinois. Those two regions serve as crucial distribution centers for major American retailers, as products manufactured in Asia make their way to U.S. stores.
Jobs at the warehouses that have sprouted up in California and Illinois over the past two decades have been touted as a pathway to the middle class for many of the area's blue-collar workers. But despite the physical demands of the job, many of the temp workers earn about the minimum wage without benefits and enjoy little job security. In the past few years labor activists have been trying to organize these workers, although the complex contracting arrangements between the companies involved make it difficult for such laborers to form unions.
Lauren Teukolsky, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who filed the suit on Thursday, claimed that Gutierrez and her Schneider colleagues lost their work hours because they earned higher wages than the temps.
"They were trying to keep costs down by taking that work away from their own employees that get paid higher hourly wages and giving it to subcontractors," Teukolsky said. "Schneider's direct employees saw their hours decrease."
In a separate lawsuit filed last year against Schneider and subcontractor Impact Logistics, one warehouse employee said in a sworn statement that supervisors had him falsify wage forms for the workers he oversaw, to make it "appear as if [they] made the minimum wage or more." Dozens of workers involved in that lawsuit claim they were cheated out of pay at the warehouse and earned below the minimum wage.
This story has been updated with comment from Schneider. Below view the complaint filed on Thursday.:
Mira Loma Complaint