Almost three years after his first complaint about his employer’s alleged illegal practices – Contra Costa County resident Joaquin Julio Castro received vindication in the form of a California Labor Commissioner decision finding that his former employer, LAZ Parking, had fired him for complaining about LAZ’s alleged unlawful employment practices. The decision is notable because it is one of the first issued by the California Labor Commissioner under its new retaliation hearings pilot program, which began this year.
Mr. Castro worked as a parking attendant for LAZ Parking, a nationwide company which has a contract to operate the City of Berkeley’s parking garages. Mr. Castro first began making complaints internally to LAZ management about its denial of his required rest breaks and non-compliance with Berkeley’s Living Wage Ordinance in 2011. Over the course of a few months, Mr. Castro began complaining outside of LAZ’s internal structure as well – to City employees, a City Councilmember and the Labor Commissioner. In 2012, LAZ fired Mr. Castro, who believed he was fired for his public complaints about LAZ.
The decision reinforces what Mr. Castro alleged from the start: that he was fired in retaliation for his complaints. Specifically, the Labor Commissioner found that Mr. Castro’s “discharge was motivated by retaliation for his complaints about his working conditions”. As a result of the decision, LAZ must pay Mr. Castro his lost wages; post a notice explaining the remedies awarded to Mr. Castro; and purge Mr. Castro’s personnel file of any reference to his termination.
Retaliation is a significant problem for workers, especially for those who are the most vulnerable, such as undocumented and low-wage workers. In 2013, about 3,500 workers filed retaliation complaints with the California Labor Commissioner. Those who complain about working conditions risk losing their jobs, which is both a loss of income and a potential black mark against them as the complaint could be noted in their personnel file.
Due both to limited resources and enormous demand, in 2013 the Labor Commissioner held only two investigative hearings regarding retaliation claims. . In order to improve its response, in 2014 the Labor Commissioner began a new pilot program to increase the number of retaliation cases it hears. Because this new program afforded him the opportunity to tell his story to a judge, Mr. Castro was finally able to access justice and vindicate his rights.
“We believe Mr. Castro’s victory is a very important one for workers across the state, because it sends a message to employers that they cannot try to get rid of “squeaky wheels” by firing them, demoting them or retaliating against them in some other way”, said Gina Gemello, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, which represented Mr. Castro at his retaliation hearings. “We are thrilled that the Labor Commissioner is taking a new direction in hearing retaliation cases, and we look forward to greater numbers of workers vindicating their rights in the future.”
“I am so happy about this decision, which I fought so long and hard for,” said Mr. Castro. “I knew it was not right that I was fired for simply speaking up about being denied pay and breaks, but I feared I would never find justice. I am hopeful that, after this decision, employers like LAZ will know that they cannot get away with punishing people who stand up for themselves.”
 See p. 2, “Retaliation Complaint Report 2013,” http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/DLSEReports.htm
 See “Retaliation complaint Report 2013, Exhibit A & B,” http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/DLSEReports.htm