BARGAIN BIZARRE

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Sometimes, 99 cents isn’t such a great deal. Workers in a local chain of 99-cent stores were paid less than minimum wage and forced to work in squalor, according to a lawsuit that will be filed in New Jersey U. S. District Court on Tuesday. The workers say that some were even locked in the stores overnight.

According to the lawsuit, 12 Mexican workers doing construction on the shops were forced to work for sub-minimum wages and sometimes labored more than 70 hours a week without overtime. Both are violations of federal wage and hour laws. Workers alleged that in some cases, they were locked in for the night–forced to stay incommunicado with no bathrooms, no place to sleep, no telephones to let their families know where they were and nothing to eat but the 99-cent merchandise on the shelves. The company allegedly in charge of all the stores, Universal Distribution Center, failed to return calls about the workers’ allegations.

While the work sites are primarily in New York City, most of the workers live in New Jersey. They approached a local immigrant’s rights group, North Bergen’s United Immigrants Association.

“They were very happy to learn from us that there are laws in this country,” said Consuelo Aguirre of UIA. “Because they don’t have papers, they thought that if they would complain, then they could be deported. But the law exists for any immigrant that’s here–with papers or with no papers.”

Aguirre and her husband, Cesar Gomez, took down the workers’ complaints, then called Denis Johnston of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker civil-rights group. Johnston helped them file a wage and hour complaint to the local Department of Labor in August of 1999. When negotiations stalled on the DOL complaint, the workers decided to withdraw the complaint and file a lawsuit in Federal Court.

The lawsuit, to be filed tomorrow morning, will be followed by a press conference at Jersey City’s International Institute and a demonstration in front of 99-Cent Dreams, one of Universal’s stores, said attorney Jennifer Ching of the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union. The 12 workers will be seeking back pay and overtime. “This time, the law is going to come to them,” said Aguirre. “And to receive something that they worked for, they are going to be so, so grateful.”