Today, the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) and Centro Legal de la Raza (Centro Legal) filed a lawsuit in California superior court against Laundry Express, an industrial laundry business headquartered in Hayward, California, that supplies area hotels, for violating minimum wage and overtime laws. In addition, the complaint alleges that Laundry Express engaged in retaliation, unlawful termination, and disability-based discrimination, routinely punishing employees for asserting their rights.
The plaintiffs, four former Laundry Express employees, were regularly denied overtime pay and meal and rest breaks, and were forced to work some of their hours without pay. In addition to ongoing wage and hour violations, the workers also faced pervasive retaliation and discrimination. One of the plaintiffs, Isabel Soriano, was fired when she asked Laundry Express for the company’s policy related to taking time off to care for an ailing relative. Another plaintiff, Sonia Chacón, was terminated four days after requesting her employment records, in a clearly retaliatory attempt to punish her and discourage others from asserting their workplace rights. A third plaintiff, Sandra Pinto, was fired after requesting a reasonable accommodation – per her doctor’s instructions – for her disability, an injury suffered while at work.
Wage theft is rampant in industries like the laundry business that employ low-income and immigrant workers. According to “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” a 2009 paper by Ruth Milkman, Annette Bernhardt et al., 26 percent of the low-wage workers they studied had been paid less than the legally required minimum wage in the previous week, and 60 percent of these were underpaid by more than $1 an hour. The study also found that: work performed outside regular shifts was typically unpaid; workers were denied meal breaks to which they were legally entitled; and illegal deductions were taken from their pay (for work-related tools, transportation, etc.). Forty-three percent of the workers who complained met illegal retaliation – they were fired, suspended, or threatened with pay cuts or the immigration authorities.
“In addition to committing systemic wage theft, Laundry Express is clearly willing to punish employees who speak up – whether about violations on the job or simply to request legally-protected time off to care for seriously ill parents or ask to be excused from heavy lifting due to an injury,” said Shira Levine, LAS-ELC’s attorney for the plaintiffs. “We hope this lawsuit will convince Laundry Express to change its exploitative and retaliatory practices while showing other employers that taking advantage of low-income and immigrant workers is not an option.”
“I did everything in my power to keep my job while following my doctor’s orders”, said Ms. Pinto, a laundry attendant who was terminated after requesting a reasonable accommodation for her disability. “But Laundry Express doesn’t want to keep anyone around who asks them to follow the law. They just want to keep paying us less than we are owed without having to deal with us as human beings.”
“There are two things that really make this case stand out,” explained Jesse Newmark, Centro Legal’s Litigation Director. “Since the day these workers and their families first came into Centro Legal, they have shown incredible resolution and courage in sharing their stories and exercising their legal rights to a safe and fair workplace. Through all of their hard work, these four brave women are not only protecting their own rights, but helping to make changes for their coworkers. Laundry Express, to the contrary, stands out for its serious violations of almost every employment law in the book, from wage theft and retaliatory firings, to discrimination and family medical leave.”