By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Two downtown L.A. garment-district workers have blown the whistle on sweatshop conditions at a factory where they sewed uniforms for law-enforcement officers in Los Angeles and New York.
Shortly after the Weekly and City Councilman Mike Feuer began investigating the workers‘ claims, garment manufacturer Winter Gear Co. agreed to pay former employees Ernesto Hernandez and Candido Pineda thousands of dollars in back wages for unpaid hours and overtime.
Winter Gear, at 1862 E. 41st Place, is a contractor for the national uniform manufacturer Fechheimer, which has extensive business ties to the city and county. Fechheimer supplies uniforms to the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, as well as local firefighters, park rangers and traffic officers.
In a city where an estimated two-thirds of the garment factories, employing thousands of workers, violate wage laws, the victory of these two workers may seem to be a small matter. But it‘s one encouraging sign of a growing movement by city and state governments to improve conditions for workers by taking a close look at their own back yards.
Winter Gear employees, Hernandez, 57, and Pineda, 37, say they typically worked nine to 12 hours on weekdays and four to five hours on Saturdays sewing Fechheimer’s pricey Alitta-brand bicycle-patrol jackets and shorts without receiving overtime wages and sometimes earning less than straight-time minimum wage.
The two workers claim that Winter Gear failed to pay them $19,000 in combined earnings over the past six years, and with help from the newly formed Garment Worker Center, they wrapped up settlement negotiations this month. To avoid a protracted legal battle and because labor laws only allow employees to recover three years of back wages, Hernandez and Pineda accepted a settlement of $3,400.
Mario Salguero, who runs Winter Gear with his wife, Corina, calls the labor violations “a misunderstanding with the workers. We‘ve talked to them, and we’re going to pay them what we owe.”
Winter Gear is housed in a cement-block warehouse with one massive corrugated-metal door that Pineda says his bosses would shut at 3:30 p.m. weekdays and on Saturdays to hide the overtime hours being worked within.
In the main windowless work area, row after row of Latino men and women sit hunched over sewing machines, surrounded by stacks of fabric. Hanging on metal racks are jackets emblazoned with patches for the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department, the New York Police Department, Santa Monica College and various Las Vegas casinos.
Hernandez began at the factory in 1998 and was initially paid a piece rate for every item he sewed. This forced him to toil quickly for long hours, but he still often failed to earn minimum wage, which employers are required by law to guarantee.
One week in August of 1998, for instance, Hernandez made just $307.15 for 63 hours of labor. Pay periods were erratic, he says, and his bosses would get angry when he asked for his check. Hernandez was laid off last October.
When Pineda began working at Winter Gear in 1995, he says, he was forbidden to punch his time card on Saturdays, and he claims the company sometimes paid him nothing at all for his Saturday hours. Pineda began secretly clocking in on the back side of the card so he would have proof of his weekend work.
Even on weekdays, Pineda would start working at 7 a.m., punch out after eight hours and then keep working off the clock. “Sometimes, we would have to finish the order from Alitta. We’d be on deadline, and we‘d stay until 10 at night,” he recalls. “From so much working, my back hurts now, and also my vision is screwed up. I can’t see at night.”
Pineda, who supports a wife and three kids with no benefits, sick days or vacation pay, says he was laid off in January after missing a couple of days of work and refusing to stay longer than 40 hours a week without overtime pay. Over the years, he saw many co-workers fired with no notice.
“People would go take a break and someone else would be working at their machine,” he says. “Because I saw before how they treated people badly and laughed, I prepared myself that when I got fired, I‘d do something.”
Pineda claims that failure to pay overtime, to guarantee the minimum wage to piece-rate workers and to provide all the legally required breaks were standard practice at Winter Gear. Because many of the employees are undocumented immigrants who need any work they can get, few have been willing to complain.
“They’re cheating the workers,” Pineda says, but “they‘re here illegally, so they won’t do anything.”
Salguero denies that the problems encountered by Hernandez and Pineda are widespread. “Some workers work one or two hours more, but not like these two workers,” he says. To be certain, he‘s been examining the past three years of timecards for all his employees, and “We’re going to take care of them.”
“We‘ve been asking everyone their status, and they say it’s okay,” he explains. “No one else has complained. We asked them if they got paid, and everybody said yes. I explained that no one was going to get fired for this. I told them to tell me if they work overtime and don‘t get paid, and they say no.”