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Beverage Distribution Workers Win Nearly $1 Million in Wage Theft Case

By to Focus on the Food Chain - September 27, 2012

A federal judge has awarded a group of immigrant workers over $950,000 in unpaid wages for work at a Queens-based beverage distributor. A group of Latino warehouse workers and truck drivers brought the class action lawsuit against Beverage Plus and its owners after years of disrespect and systematic violations of state and federal law, violations which the judge found were intentional. The workers are members of Focus on the Food Chain, a coalition promoting good jobs and a sustainable food system in New York City's growing food processing and distribution sector.

"My co-workers and I were deprived of our pay and badly exploited but we finally learned about our rights," said Richard Merino, who drove a delivery truck at Beverage Plus for six years and was a named plaintiff in the case. "We stood up together and now justice has arrived for us and more importantly for our families."

Beverage Plus employees were worked as many as twelve hours a day, deprived of overtime, and subjected to unlawful deductions from their pay.

Individual workers will recover as much as $169,000 and the egregious nature of the company's conduct resulted in an award of punitive and compensatory damages for retaliation. The workers were represented by the law firm Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C and Brandworkers, a non-profit organization advancing the rights of low-wage retail and food employees.

"All of us who eat in New York rely on the hard work of the City's 35,000 food processing and distribution workers," said Daniel Gross, the executive director of Brandworkers and one of the attorneys on the case. "With this victory, we're one step closer to a food chain based on sustainability and human rights, rather than sweatshop practices."

The employees in NYC's industrial food industry are 80% immigrant workers of color and the sector is characterized by high levels of workers' rights violations. Workers are routinely subjected to large-scale wage theft, like at Beverage Plus, depriving families of hard-earned wealth. Workers of color and women workers are relegated to the hardest and lowest paying positions, and all white senior management teams are common. Employers frequently cut costs by disregarding health and safety protections, and as a result, over 4 in 10 workers in the sector have been injured on the job.

Focus on the Food Chain, a coalition of Brandworkers and the NYC Industrial Workers of the World, provides a space for food processing and distribution workers to discuss common challenges and carry out innovative campaigns for workplace justice. Focus members have won high-profile victories through worker-led grassroots advocacy and legal action at a diverse array of food processing and distribution businesses, most recently at a Brooklyn hummus producer where workers recovered over half a million dollars in unpaid wages and made extensive improvements to working conditions.