Hard Labor

By Tommy A. Purvis

Posted April 11, 2013 in News
(WEB)newsJudge accuses Mira Loma warehouse operator of coercion and deceit

Another favorable legal decision for workers’ rights group Warehouse Workers United (WWU) has come from the the bench of U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder.

Walmart contractor Schneider Logistics and its attorneys are prohibited from communicating with employees who are party to a class-action lawsuit over alleged wage and payroll violations, as per an order from Judge Snyder. Snyder said the logistics firm—which operates a trio of Mira Loma-based warehouses solely dedicated to moving Asian-made Walmart consumer goods—had used misleading tactics to interview employees that were part of the pending lawsuit.

California Rules of Professional Conduct requires attorneys representing employers not to mislead employees into thinking that the information they provide to employers will remain confidential—in other words, such information will not be used later for the employer’s benefit in the future.

Before Snyder’s order took effect late last month, Schneider was able to obtain 106 sworn declarations from workers who were called into a manager’s office for what they were told was an “internal investigation” about working conditions. The interviews—conducted last spring—came on the heels of the employee lawsuit that was filed over an alternative work-week arrangement that warehouse workers claim resulted in unpaid overtime and other violations.

“The attorneys did not translate my statement into Spanish before I signed it,” former Schneider employee Joel Alvarado told the Weekly in a written statement provided by Traber & Voorhees, the firm representing the Schneider employees. “They never told me that I was signing a statement under penalty of perjury that would be given to the Court. They made me believe that it was just a summary of the conversation.”

Lauren Teukolsky of Traber & Voorhees told the Weekly that Alvarado is a Spanish-speaker who does not consider himself fluent in English, particularly when it comes to a formal legal documents signed under penalty of perjury. It also turns out that many of his co-workers who also speak English as a second language were put in the same position.

“While the deceptive nature of the interviews is sufficient to support a finding that improper communications have taken place, the Court also finds that the interviews were impermissibly coercive,” Snyder wrote in the minutes filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Snyder found that only five of the nearly 120 employees who found themselves in the manager’s office with Schneider lawyers chose to leave the voluntary interviews. Furthermore, only six employees declined to sign a written declaration at the end of the interview process. That suggested that the “interviewing attorneys’ grant of permission to leave did little to dispel the aura of coercion,” she wrote.

In January, a judge ruled that Walmart could be named as a defendant in the  HYPERLINK “http://ieweekly.com/2012/02/news-stories-2/news-stories/labor-pains/” class-action lawsuit. Ten days earlier, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected two appeals filed by Schneider after Snyder delivered unfavorable rulings. The Weekly has also been reporting on Schneider’s  HYPERLINK “http://ieweekly.com/2012/06/news-stories-2/news-stories/chain-reaction/” labor issues and  HYPERLINK “http://ieweekly.com/2012/03/news-stories-2/news-stories/sheeps-clothing/” allegations over the past couple of years.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart plans to implement an auditing system for labor conditions in its subcontracted warehouses similar to the one in place for its suppliers abroad. The auditing system was not able to prevent the deaths of 112 workers killed in an inferno in the Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh last November. Sumi Abedin—a 24-year-old garment worker who jumped from a fourth-floor window of the burning garment factory that made clothes sold in Walmart—recently arrived in Los Angeles. Abedin is on a U.S. tour to win better protections and compensation for workers, and will be meeting with Schneider warehouse workers.

Teukolsky told the Weekly that Snyder’s recent order is a huge victory that sends a message to Schneider that it cannot intimidate its workers or retaliate against those who stand up for their rights.

Douglas Farmer, one of the attorneys at labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins representing Schneider Logistics told Thomson Reuters that language on the declarations signed by the employees stated that they could be a “potential member of a class of individuals on whose behalf a lawsuit has been brought,” among other disclaimers. He went on to add that Schneider respects the court’s order and fully intends to follow it.

Teukolsky told the Weekly that the class action lawsuit will seek certification this fall after completing the discovery process in lawsuit filed as Franklin Quezada v. Schneider Logistics Transloading and Distribution.

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