By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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.
"Here's a target," says Padilla, motioning to the awning that reads ".99 and Up." The discount store is brimming with mops, detergent, and paper towels, each item under a buck. Last August, Spitzer reached a $70,000 settlement with the owner, Khubaib Massood, for back wages owed to four employees. They were making $3.44 an hour.
Padilla points to S&S Farms. "We confronted him," Padilla adds, referring to Heung Park, who operates the greengrocer. A March 2005 complaint led to a $28,852 settlement with the AG for three employees earning an hourly $3.50. Today, the AG's office is prosecuting Park in Brooklyn Criminal Court for defying that agreement.
But the group's biggest coup, by far, came at Footco, a discount sneaker chain. An August 2005 complaint ended in a union contract for workers this year. That has meant not just a doubling of salaries, but the providing of health benefits too.
Annette Bernhardt, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, considers Knickerbocker Avenue a microcosm of the rest of the city. She and her colleagues have interviewed 300 workers and employers throughout the five boroughs, and have identified 14 industries where wage violations have become standard, including retail.
The problem has grown prevalent in poor neighborhoods like Bushwick. Predominantly immigrant employees grapple with language barriers and, in some instances, shaky legal status. Predominantly immigrant employers don't keep up on the laws, either, which have changed twice in two years. Meanwhile, the government has stopped aggressive enforcement. "If you're a low-road employer, you have a lot of incentive to break the law," Bernhardt says.
Food retailers have become prime suspects. The AG's labor bureau has prosecuted hundreds of greengrocers for violations since 1999, says Smith. Three years ago, it negotiated the landmark $3.2 million settlement against Gristede's Food, in Manhattan. That's how much the supermarket chain owed 60 delivery workers who had toiled 60 hours a week for $95 plus tips.
Just last May, nine former employees sued another Bushwick supermarket, Food Bazaar, accusing the store of forcing them to work 50 to 60 hours per week, paid only in tips. The lawsuit, now pending in federal district court, seeks more than $1.5 million in back wages and overtime pay.
Over at Associated, conditions seem mixed. Employees who spoke with the Voice represented virtually every department, from meat to produce to the main floor. They handle food, load cargo, stock shelves, deliver groceries. Shifts last 10 hours, and run six days straight, they say. Yet the workers say only two employees get a proper wage$500 a week, or $7.14 an hour. The rest report averaging $300 a weekthe going rate at grocery stores, restaurants, and garment factories these days, according to Bernhardt. Packers, including the Nuñezes, report receiving only tips.
"It's not enough," says one worker about his wage, "not with the hard work that we do."
As far back as December 2004, Make the Road activists began approaching the workers, explaining the push to wipe out allegedly abusive conditions. It took months to convince enough of them to participate in the AG complaint. Eventually, that same worker relays, "we said, 'Let's do it.' It was time to stand up."
These days, activists are literally standing up outside the Associated store. Evenings at five, the picket line forms in front of the tired supermarket, its windows papered with promotional bannersHunt's tomato paste, two for $3; Super "A" mayonnaise for $1. At times, the protests have drawn 50 people. On this Thursday, there are three lone picketers. They pass out pink flyers that announce "Boycott Continues," as shoppers slip in and out of the store. Some shoppers murmur an apology; others turn away to buy groceries elsewhere. And somenot a chance. Says one thirtysomething man with a shrug, "I've got to buy food."
Activists wrote to Bienvenidos Nuñez on June 16, announcing the boycott over wages and requesting a meeting. Make the Road organizers met with his attorney, Rosenthal, to no avail. Last month, the company filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the boycott amounts to a demand for union recognition. Rosenthal argues that Make the Road is a front for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, a Despierta Bushwick collaborator.
"This is all about a union seeking to organize," he tells the Voice.
Manhattan attorney Andrew Erlich, who represents Make the Road, counters that "this is an obvious attempt to stifle the community's voice." After all, he notes, any picketing would have to stop if there were a union election. "The owners are essentially saying that Make the Road is a union, and that's not true."
Evidently, the NLRB agreed; on July 18, it threw out the petition without a hearing. In the five-page decision, the board found "no evidence that Make the Road, the Union, or any labor organization commenced organizing the employees."
Back at Associated, employees have seen some changesgood and bad. The workers interviewed for this story say they've received a $25 hike in their weekly wages since June. At the same time, they claim, they've had to sign letters stating that they make the minimum wage and that they won't join a union.
For the Nuñezes, things seem worse. Sitting in Make the Road's Grove Street office, surrounded by stacks of "Boycott Associated" mailers, the couple recall how they lost their jobs within weeks of the action. After activists singled out the paltry pay of packersthere are four in allthe Nuñezes say their superiors called them into the office, and asked if they'd participated in the labor complaint.
"I said, 'I'm going to be honest. We did,' " Ramon recalls. Supervisors pressured the couple to sign documents, written in English, they say. Then, they handed the couple time cards to use daily. The Nuñezes refused. "I said, 'I'm not going to punch in and out, because you're not paying me,' " Ramon remembers.
Adds Tomacina, "I don't want to have anything to do with lying. God does not like that."
The couple claim they got permission to take off work for a family emergency. But when they returned, they were told to leave. Since July 13, Ramon says he has tried to call the store four times to ask about his and his wife's jobs, to no avail. They cannot help but think the firing was retaliation for talking to the AG.
Rosenthal denies the charge. "We have not terminated any workers as a retaliatory act. That information is just false."
Smith, of the labor bureau, says investigators are aware of the accusation. "It would come into play in any complaint," she adds. If the AG's office finds wage violations, the labor bureau will try to force a settlement on behalf of employees. Attests Smith, "We do settle most cases because the employer violated the law, and he's got nothing to say in court."
For now, workers say they want what they deserveback wages and decent pay. "Whatever happens will happen," offers Tomacina. "But I think the workers will win."