Target Corp. contractor settles labor law violations

Migrants worked 7 days a week, got no overtime

August 26, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The U.S. Department of Labor said yesterday that it had reached a $1.9 million settlement with a contractor for Target Corp. after finding that the contractor had not paid overtime to hundreds of immigrant janitors who often worked seven nights a week cleaning Target stores.

Several janitors said in interviews that the Target contractor was doing much the same as contractors for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had done before an immigration raid in October. Wal-Mart allegedly made late-night janitors work nearly 365 days a year, without paying overtime or Social Security and other taxes.

The Labor Department announced its back-pay settlement with Global Building Services of Newhall, Calif., after a two-year investigation found that Global had not paid overtime to 775 immigrant janitors who cleaned Target stores in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.

The Labor Department was tipped off to the violations by a Los Angeles group, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, that monitors whether employers are breaking the law when they use janitors.

"We investigated 50 Target stores, and we saw that janitors were being paid in cash, a flat rate with no overtime, no payroll taxes, no workers comp," said Lilia Garcia, the trust fund's executive director. "It's a cancer in the industry, too many of these big retailers are using problematic contractors."

Garcia said her group found that a half-dozen of the late-night cleaners were only 15 or 16 years old. She said Global Building Services fired them soon after the federal investigation started largely because state law bars employees so young from working that late at night and so many hours a day or a week. California labor officials participated in the inquiry.

In October, federal agents raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in 21 states to arrest 250 cleaners who they said were illegal immigrants. The immigrants were employed by various Wal-Mart contractors, and as at the Target stores, they usually worked seven nights a week and were paid in cash without receiving overtime.

Labor Department officials declined to say whether they were investigating Wal-Mart or its contractors, although the world's largest retailer acknowledged that a federal grand jury in Pennsylvania is investigating whether it illegally cooperated with its contractors to use illegal immigrants as cleaners.

Under $4 an hour

Lawyers in New York have filed a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart charging various labor violations on behalf of what they estimate are thousands of illegal immigrant janitors.

Felipe Aguilar, who said he cleaned at five Target stores in Southern California, said in a telephone interview: "In my three years there, they gave me very few days off. And when I came back after being out injured for two weeks, the company said, `We can't take you back. Someone else is working in your place.' "

Aguilar said that he worked about 80 hours a week, from about 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily, and was paid $525 or $625 every 15 days. That came to less than $4 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $5.15.

His wife, Claudia, who also worked at Target, said, "We felt bad about the pay, sometimes we felt rage, but we were scared to complain because we needed the job."

In a statement, Global Building Services said that after these problems were brought to its attention in November 2002, it cooperated fully with the investigation and changed its pay practices.

"We are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the Department of Labor to compensate our employees," Global said. "The company is fully compliant, and we look forward to serving the needs of our retail customers. We feel this is all behind us now."

`Appropriate action'

Target issued a statement last night saying that it "does not tolerate unethical business practices in any form, including on the part of our vendors." Noting that it contracts with regional companies to clean its stores, Target said that it has a tightly controlled process to manage these contracts.

Target added that it required all contractors, including Global Building Services, to comply with all applicable federal and local laws and to investigate and respond appropriately to charges that laws were being violated.

"As a result of Global Building Services' recent agreement, we are in the process of collecting more information and will be taking appropriate action," the company said.

Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said the settlement showed "our commitment to protecting the overtime rights of workers."

Garcia, of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, said she was pleased that the settlement called for her group to monitor Global Building Services to help ensure compliance.

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