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Ever live off pennies a day? Ramon Nuñez hasliterally. Pennies. Dimes. Quarters. That's what he'd pocket in wages from his shifts bagging groceries at the Associated Supermarket, in Bushwick. Nuñez has toiled at the Knickerbocker Avenue store for seven years, manning checkout aisles, packing cans and boxes into bags. He'd work 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days straight, he says, yet the store paid him nothing.
"I worked for tips," says Nuñez, 77, in Spanish, speaking through a translator.
So did his 69-year-old wife, Tomacina, who started at the supermarket in 2004. When the company hired her, she says, it informed her she would get no hourly or weekly wage, unlike most employees there. She took the job anyway. "We had no choice," she says. The two are newly legalized immigrants from the Dominican Republic. For years, she adds, "We didn't ask for money because we didn't have our papers."
They hustled hard for their tips instead, loading bags into carts and pushing them to cars. Every day, they'd place a box near the register. Customers would toss in coins, or the occasional dollar. On average, the couple say, they earned $40 a day, $240 a week. That calculates out to $3.43 an hour, far below the state minimum hourly wage of $6.75 and the federal minimum of $5.15.
Now that they have green cards, the couple have made their own small change: They've decided to speak up against what they call their employer's abuses. They've consulted lawyers about their paltry pay and signed affidavits attesting to the store's poor conditions. On July 17, they testified to the office of New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer.
"Every worker has a right to dignity, and that dignity comes with a salary," says Nuñez. He and his wife abruptly lost their jobs last month, without explanation, they say. Still, Nuñez asks, "Why shouldn't we complain?"
They're doing more than that. On June 18, a Bushwick immigrant- advocacy group called Make the Road by Walking launched a store boycott over what it claims are illegal labor practices. With the help of workers like the Nuñezes, the group has also filed a complaint with the AG's office against 229 Knickerbocker Meat Corporation, which owns the supermarket. The complaint accuses the company of violating minimum wage and overtime laws.
Deborah Axt, the legal director at Make the Road, charges, "Associated is a very serious wage violator." She has interviewed and taken affidavits from more than half of the store's 28-strong current workforce, plus former employees, as corroborating evidence for the complaint. Some employees, like the Nuñezes, get nothing but tips, she says. Others earn a weekly wage that amounts to less than the minimum, she says, and still others make base pay, but not overtime. By Axt's calculations, the store has illegally withheld some $1 million in wages and overtime pay from its employees.
Her claims are echoed in the affidavits, copies of which Axt shared with the Voice. A half-dozen or so Associated employees interviewed by the paper say they toil 60 hours a week for $300 to $325or $4.29 to $4.64 an hour. The employees refused to speak publicly for fear they'd be fired for complaining, as they suspect the Nuñezes were. Still, they're joining the protest effort. "It's too much time that the owners exploit us, and it's time to stop," said one veteran worker.
Bienvenidos Nuñez, the company chairman, did not respond to four phone messages and a letter seeking comment. Manhattan lawyer Joseph Rosenthal, who represents the company, confirms that the AG's office is investigating the store, although he stresses that no formal action over wage violations has been made. He insists the supermarket is complying with labor laws.
"There are no accusations by anybody but this group," Rosenthal argues. Told that the Voice had spoken with employees firsthand, he retorts, "People can make all the allegations they want. My client hasn't been charged with violating minimum wage and hour laws, and that's all there is to it."
Spitzer's office wouldn't discuss details of the pending inquiry, such as whether investigators had taken employee testimony or subpoenaed the store's payroll records. Said Patricia Smith, who heads the AG's labor bureau, "We are moving forward. It's an ongoing investigation."
Smith says the Associated complaint fits a pattern. In the last 18 months, her bureau has worked with Make the Road on three such cases involving retail outlets on Knickerbocker Avenue, all of which yielded settlements in favor of employees.
"The Associated complaint is representative of the situation," Smith observes. "This group has found stores with clear violations, and those violations are totally typical of what we see in this office overall."
Take a stroll along Knickerbocker Avenue, and you enter a kind of urban Wild West, with vendors hawking cheap wares from blankets and carts along a crowded mile of 175 apparel outlets, discount stores, and restaurants. Around here, low wages seem as common as low prices, says Nieves Padilla, the labor organizer at Make the Road. Only two retail outlets have unions, guaranteeing decent wages. Many don't pay the minimum, she says, let alone time-and-a-half rates. To combat these illegal practices, Padilla and fellow activists launched the Despierta (Wake Up) Bushwick campaign last year, singling out big stores that can afford to pay workers a proper wage but don't.