Delivering the Goods

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Hiji wonders why he makes $1.25 an hour delivering groceries to Gristedes customers in Murray Hill while his colleagues at the Food Emporium nearby earn minimum wage. “I’ve come for my family, my wife and my children to eat,” says the former appliance salesman from Mali, who asked that his name be changed since some of his co-workers allegedly have been fired for talking to the press.

In response to a lawsuit filed by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last year, Food Emporium promised in December to pay $3 million in back wages to its deliverymen and has boosted salaries to minimum wage, settling charges that the workers were overworked and underpaid. Duane Reade, also named in the case, began paying the $5.15 an hour minimum wage last year. But 18 months after the suit was filed, Gristedes, Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain, remains the only defendant that still pays its runners well below minimum wage.

“I have never had a case like Gristedes where the employer was put on notice about violations and made no change at all,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, an attorney with NELP. The class action suit, certified in April by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the federal Southern District court, charges that the three chains pay their deliverymen, through contract delivery companies. $1 to $2 an hour, without overtime pay, for their 10- to 12-hour work days, six or seven days a week. Ruckelshaus hopes a victory in court will hold all grocery stores and their contractors liable for illegal labor practices. She says the stores should not think they can take advantage of these employees, most of them undocumented immigrants from West Africa, because of their legal status. “The law is that if you work in this country, you get paid, no matter what.” NELP has enrolled 350 plaintiffs to date, and aims to have at least 1,000 on board when a trial date is scheduled this September.

Meanwhile, Gristedes and Duane Reade have appealed the lawsuit, arguing that each store’s situation is unique and that the courts should not consider the deliverymen as one group. “We are responsible for our own employees,” says John Catsimatides, the owner of Gristedes. “If workers are being paid that low, then they should quit and find another job.”

In his own defense, Catsimatides says he is willing to settle with any of his deliverymen who can produce tax forms as proof of employment. He would rather pay out a nominal sum than continue with an expensive lawsuit. But what if, as the workers claim, they’re paid their $70 to $90 a week salary off the books? “Not my problem,” he says, adding that workers go home with tips that add significantly to their weekly earnings.

This isn’t the first time Gristedes has made an out-of-court offer. In March, Gristedes offered full-time employment to any workers who drop out of the class action suit. “If they play ball with us,” says Catsimatides, “then we will pay them a full salary and help them attain permanent status in the country.” Ruckelshaus and her clients rejected the deal, viewing it as a veiled threat of deportation that would force workers to surrender their legal rights to back wages.

For now, Hiji and his co-workers stay on the job to make what they can, and hope for a successful lawsuit. They also hope that organizing efforts by Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union will strengthen their efforts to get hired as in-house employees. Says Hiji, “A job that pays an hourly wage, that is all I want.”