Business & Economy

Wage theft is happening in logistics warehouses too

Warehouse workers rally in Riverside after announcing a class action lawsuit against a Wal-Mart warehouse operated by Schneider Logistics.
Warehouse workers rally in Riverside after announcing a class action lawsuit against a Wal-Mart warehouse operated by Schneider Logistics.
Steven Cuevas via KQED

Ten workers from a Fontana logistics warehouse have been awarded a total of $80,000 in back wages, after filing wage theft complaints with California's Labor Commissioner.

In court documents, the workers said their employer, Waitex Group, frequently underpaid them between 2009 and 2015 after keeping imprecise timecard documentation. In addition, the workers claimed they often endured 12-hour shifts but were not paid double-time or offered enough meal or rest breaks.

Veronica Rivera will receive $8,500 from the company. She said her co-workers were initially afraid to come forward with the wage theft claims. 

"But once you do it, you learn that you have rights, and that the employer is not supposed to abuse you in this way," she said through an interpreter.

Waitex did not respond to KPCC's request for comment.

Many workers don't report wage theft out of fear they'll lose their job, said Sheheryar Kaoosji, of the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, an advocacy group that has helped Southern California warehouse workers - many of whom earn minimum wage - get back more than $27 million in back pay over the past five years.

"[Logistics] is a huge industry, over 100,000 workers [in Southern California]," he said. "As more and more of these cases come out, workers are more likely to speak up because they see they are not the only ones."

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su echoed Kaoosji's thinking. Su told KPCC that she has prioritized wage theft since taking the helm in 2011. As Inland Empire warehouse employment has soared, so has the number of wage complaints, she said.

"The fact that we have been focusing on wage theft, and we have done investigations in warehouses in the Inland Empire, I think that has had a positive effect on workers knowing their rights and being willing to step forward," she said.

Three years ago, Su launched the Wage Theft Is A Crime campaign, in an effort to educate workers of their rights. Outreach is currently focused in Fresno, Bakersfield and the Inland Empire.

Over the past 10 years, the rise of online shopping has fueled a wave of hiring in San Bernardino and Riverside county warehouses. When labor issues arise, most workers cannot afford a lawyer.

The Fontana workers received free legal representation through a program at UC Irvine's School of Law. Over three years, about a dozen students prepared the legal documents and prepared the workers for their testimony.

While wage theft is more rampant among domestic workers, day laborers, seamstresses and dishwashers, it's also a problem in global logistics warehouses, said Sameer Ashar, a UC Irvine law professor who supervised the students.

"This case revealed how wage theft was occurring in the context of a formal, highly structured system created by a large multi-national corporation," said Ashar. "And yet the workers didn't get employment manuals. They didn't get double time when they worked 12 hours. This is really simple, fundamental compliance with California employment law that was lacking on a structural, systemic level."