A group of workers at a California warehouse handling goods bound for Walmart stores have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they've been working under abusive conditions.
Everardo Carrillo and five other low-wage employees who've worked at the Riverside County, Calif., warehouse run by Walmart contractor Schneider Logistics allege that they've been routinely shortchanged on their paychecks, required to work in dangerously hot conditions and threatened with termination when they've complained to superiors.
The suit names as defendants Schneider and three of its subcontractors who supply temporary labor to the facility. Walmart itself is not being sued, though the suit says workers in the warehouse load and unload exclusively Walmart products. According to the suit, most of the workers there are Latino immigrants who do not speak English and have no education beyond middle school.
The workers "spend their workdays performing strenuous, unskilled physical labor in an environment where the temperature often exceeds 90 degrees," the suit alleges. When workers questioned their paychecks, their bosses "routinely responded with threats of retaliation and actual retaliation, including by sending the inquiring workers home without pay, refusing to give them work the next day ... and imposing other forms of discipline on them."
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In a statement, a lawyer for Schneider's parent company, Schneider National, said Schneider would "vigorously defend" itself in court. “Schneider is confident that it is in full compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations governing its warehousing operations, and we expect the same of our vendors," the statement said. "Such vendors are independent of Schneider. We do not have a joint employer relationship with our vendors and any allegation to that effect is absolutely false.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a handful of alleged labor law violations filed last week against two temporary labor agencies at the facility. Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su told HuffPost last week that in addition to many workers not being given proper paystubs, some may not have been paid for all the time they had worked. She said the charges marked the beginning of an "in-depth" investigation of the companies operating inside the warehouse.
"Warehouses are one example of the ever-increasing contracting out of labor," Su said of subcontracting. "It's difficult for enforcement, and in many instances it's a deliberate effort to avoid compliance."
Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, does not directly employ anyone at the warehouse. Asked about the commission's allegations last week, Dan Fogleman, a Walmart spokesman, told HuffPost that the company is "not involved in this matter." He added, "The contracts we have in place with third parties require that they follow the law, and that’s something we fully expect."
Schneider was sued earlier this year by workers at a similar facility in Illinois who claimed they weren't paid what they were owed.
According to the California lawsuit, most of the workers in the warehouse used to be directly employed by Schneider, earning between $12 and $17 per hour with benefits. But over the course of the last five years, the proportion of direct hires in the warehouse has steadily dropped, to about 25 percent, while pay has fallen as well, workers allege. The lawsuit accuses the companies of carrying out "an unlawful scheme" to depress wages through outsourcing.
In February 2010, the employers at the warehouse switched the workers from an hourly pay rate to a "piece rate" plan, in which they were paid for the number of truck containers that they loaded or unloaded, according to the suit. The workers claim that they were told they would earn "much more money" under the new scheme, but that in fact their earnings dropped. (Piece rate work is perfectly legal, so long as it abides by minimum wage and other labor laws.)
"No matter how much effort a worker devotes to filling or unloading a given truck container, if that container is not completely filled or unloaded by the end of the worker's shift, the worker will not be paid," the suit claims.
Sheheryar Kaoosji, who works for the advocacy group Warehouse Workers United, claims that the employers haven't explained exactly how the piece rate plan works and that workers don't understand how their pay breaks down.
"It's not a question of education," Kaoosji said of the confusion. "We have lawyers who don’t even understand it."
The Riverside facility is part of a large warehouse network in the Inland Empire area of California. The network serves as a gateway of sorts for products coming in from China; from there they ship out to distribution centers throughout the country. According to Kaoosji, many of the country's major retailers have large facilities in the area.
Kaoosji said the work is physically demanding, and temperatures can rise to over 90 degrees inside. Throughout the day, he said, workers must go in and out of steel containers loading and unloading products.
"Those boxes are sitting in the sun all day," Kaoosji said.
Last month, the Allentown Morning Call published a lengthy expose of brutal working conditions at a distribution center for the online retailer Amazon. Workers said they had to deal with increasing productivity demands and unbearable heat inside the warehouse. On some days ambulances waited outside the facility in the likelihood that workers would suffer from heat exhaustion.