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.”

Alitta, the cop-garb label made at Winter Gear, is one of the leading brands of bike-patrol uniforms in the nation, according to Kevin Meek, marketing manager for uniform retailer Quartermaster, whose fall catalog advertised Alitta jackets for $179.95 and shorts for $66.50.

“They’re considered the premium, and they charge a premium price for premium workmanship,” Meek says. “You pay a lot for the name.”

The Sheriff‘s Department had a direct contract with Alitta for bike-officer uniforms from 1994 through 1996, the period when Pineda first joined Winter Gear. Since 1996, the Sheriff’s Department has contracted with various retailers like Quartermaster, which were supplied with Alitta bike uniforms made at the Winter Gear factory.

Alitta‘s parent company, Fechheimer, also sells other types of uniforms to city employees through Uniforms Inc., which has more than $600,000 worth of contracts with the city government, according to the Department of General Services.

Police uniforms under those contracts are generally for new recruits. Most veteran police officers and sheriff’s deputies, however, are given an allowance to purchase uniforms from approved vendors who meet specifications. Both Alitta and Fechheimer are on the LAPD‘s approved-vendor list, according to a department spokeswoman. The combined uniform budgets for police and deputies total more than $16 million a year.

The dispute over the workers’ pay prompted the Sheriff‘s Department to write a letter to its vendors reminding them to pay their employees a living wage. Beyond that, purchasers for the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department felt there was little they could do.

The city is currently crafting rules for a contractor-responsibility ordinance adopted by the council last fall, which would require uniform contractors to disclose their subcontractors. But even with full disclosure, there‘s no escaping the fact that violations are endemic to L.A.’s garment industry.

The U.S. Department of Labor last year estimated that two-thirds of the Los Angeles–area garment-manufacturing shops violated federal minimum-wage and overtime laws. Los Angeles has the largest garment-manufacturing industry in the country, with more than 100,000 workers providing labor for California‘s second-largest manufacturing industry. UC Riverside professor Bonacich estimates that the city’s garment workers are owed $73 million a year in unpaid wages.

The California Assembly passed a bill in 1999 that would hold manufacturers and some retailers responsible for violations by their contractors, although several large retailers have attempted to weaken the law and regulations have not been finalized, Bonacich says. “The manufacturers like a system where they can get cheap labor and not have to take responsibility.”

Fred Heldman, vice president at Fechheimer, initially denied any knowledge of violations by his contractors, including Winter Gear. “We insist that all our contractors follow all wage and hour laws,” he says. “We have quality inspectors and employees who visit our subcontractors.”

But after Winter Gear agreed to settle with Hernandez and Pineda, Fechheimer president and CEO Brad Kinstler sent a letter to its customers, including city purchasers, acknowledging that there “was a legitimate dispute.”

The letter went on to say that no other problems have arisen, no further action is needed, and any allegations that a “significant problem existed” were part of a “smear campaign.”

The speedy results achieved by the Winter Gear whistle blowers — getting the company to agree to fork over back wages before a formal complaint was even filed at the Department of Industrial Relations — are ideal but “atypical,” says Joann Lo, an organizer at the Garment Worker Center.

Feuer, who is running for city attorney, pressured Fechheimer to look into the Winter Gear violations and plans to sit down with the Garment Worker Center to craft an anti-sweatshop motion before he leaves office.

“The garment industry is the door through which so many new immigrants enter the economy,” says Feuer, whose grandmother worked in a sweatshop. “It‘s our responsibility to put a stop to it.”

LA Weekly