Workers, State Officials Allege Labor Abuses At Calif. Warehouse Complex

labor abuse warehouse WalmartWorkers at a massive warehouse complex in Southern California are claiming that they were shorted wages and routinely subjected to workplace indignities, among other labor abuses, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

The workers are employed at three large warehouses at a complex in Riverside County, southeast of L.A., where brand-name goods shipped to nearby ports from Southeast Asia are sorted for distribution to Walmart stores throughout the U.S.

The lawsuit, brought by Jorge Soto and dozens of other warehouse workers, alleges that Schneider National Inc., which operates the warehouses, and two staffing companies routinely engaged in fraudulent pay practices that resulted in employees earning far less than the state-mandated $8-an-hour minimum wage, according to a report by FairWarning, a nonprofit news site that covers safety and health issues.

In an interview with FairWarning, Soto, a 47-year-old native of Mexico, said management ordered him to falsify time sheets, reducing workers' earnings to as little as $3 or $4 an hour. "They wanted to wash their hands of it through me," said Soto, who worked as a lead crew member.

Investigations by state labor officials into the companies' actions so far have led to proposed fines of nearly $1.4 million.

As the report notes, the warehouses help bring low-cost goods to consumers. But constant pressure to hold down costs results in jobs with low wages and few if any benefits. Such unskilled jobs are often filled by Latino immigrants.

The suit alleges that the companies used an opaque system, based on the number of semi-truck containers loaded and unloaded, for calculating wages that resulted in workers not knowing exactly how much they earned.

Among other complaints listed in the lawsuit, filed in October, FairWarning notes these in its report:

  • Crew leaders such as Soto were under orders at some warehouses to force workers to sign blank time sheets, a tactic that made it easier to cheat employees out of their rightful pay.
  • Workers often were paid only for the time they spent loading and unloading trucks -- not for the time they put in sweeping warehouses, labeling and restacking boxes or waiting to find out if they would be assigned work.
  • High heat in the warehouses and constant pressure for speed created safety problems, triggering an investigation by state labor officials that resulted in the issuance of more than 60 workplace safety violations and $256,445 in potential penalties.
  • Many workers, classified as temporaries despite years of service, said they were threatened with being blackballed and never being hired again if they raised questions about their pay or took part in protest or unionizing efforts.

Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, wasn't named in the lawsuit, though the warehouses in question are operated solely on its behalf, according to FairWarning. The Bentonville, Ark.-based company didn't respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

Though the lawsuit is still in early stages, FairWarning notes that the action already has had an impact. The court has required the companies to provide workers with itemized wage statements and return them to an hourly pay system.

The companies nonetheless continue to dispute the lawsuit's allegations.

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