Away from home for the first time in her life, night janitor Mariatoña Orea was looking forward to spending last Christmas Eve with a relative in Los Angeles. Her supervisor, a janitorial contractor at Santa Monica’s Ralphs supermarket, granted her request. But two days later, he told her that she could take the rest of the week off; she was fired.
“He [the supervisor] told me that he did not need people that would ask him to have Christmas Eve off,” said the 23-year-old Orea. “That was my Christmas present from him: getting fired.”
Last week, Orea joined other janitors in a class-action lawsuit alleging negligent supervising and fraud on behalf of about 600 workers who strip and wax floors at Ralphs, Albertson and Vons supermarket chains in Southern California. The lawsuit, filed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), also names Encompass Staffing Services and Building One, contracting companies that provide cleaning crews to the supermarkets.
MALDEF lawyer Enrique Gallardo said many janitors worked seven straight days in a row and received no overtime pay. The 41-page lawsuit, which seeks back wages, alleges that the contracting companies and the supermarket chains are really joint employers when it comes to supervising the janitors. “Legally they [the supermarket chains] are still the employers,” Gallardo said. “They are trying to avoid responsibility for complying with wage and labor laws by this system of contracting out the labor.”
Ralphs spokesman Terry O’Neill said that he could not comment on Orea’s claim nor on those of the other janitors because of the pending lawsuit. Representatives of the other supermarket companies and the contracting agencies denied any wrongdoing. “Albertson’s is not related in any way to Encompass,” the company said in a written statement. “Therefore it has no direct control over the employees of Encompass.” Vons spokesman Kevin Herglotz said, “These janitors do not work for us. Encompass is a separate company.”
The Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of janitors in Southern California, also joined the lawsuit. The union claims that the contracting companies and supermarkets did not pay union wages and engaged in unfair labor practices.
It used to be that the supermarket chains would hire janitors directly and handle their compensation and benefits. The lawsuit alleges that in 1994 the supermarkets began using contracting companies as a way to get around paying union wages and benefits. Although the janitors are paid by the contracting companies, many are supervised by supermarket managers, Gallardo said. Supermarket managers are aware of the janitors’ work hours, wages and daily evaluation reports.
Since being fired last year from Encompass, Orea worked as a seamstress before landing a job as a janitor at a Stater Bros. supermarket. She still works nights, but the pay is better, she said. She is grateful that she has some extra money to send home to relatives in Mexico. She said the American system of work has also taught her some tough lessons. “You hear a lot about the American Dream, but so far I have only seen work and more work,” Orea said. “This year I expect to work during the holidays. And I will not ask to be given Christmas off.”