A few supermarket workers were delivered a break last week when federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein ordered a contractor with Gristedes, Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain, to rehire the five delivery workers he laid off on October 25, and to pay each of them $1,000 in back wages for the work they missed.
The deliverymen, most of them undocumented immigrants from West Africa, were let go a month after they testified against the contractor, Charles Baur of the Great American Delivery Company, Inc., in a court case charging that the supermarket pays its deliverers $1 to $2 an hour without overtime pay, well below minimum wage. Baur also collected copies of workers’ visas and passports and threatened to call the INS to “turn them in.”
“It is clear from the record that the tactics used by the defendant Charles Baur are unlawful and reprehensible, choosing to intimidate people who have no independent source of income and are not able to sustain themselves in the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing,” said Judge Hellerstein in his decision.
This case marks a rare New York moment in which the court orders an employer to immediately rehire undocumented immigrants. Typically, advocacy groups will file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and picket the business to protest a retaliation firing, a tactic that rarely gets workers rehired. But lawyers recently have begun battling in court for temporary restraining orders, which can reverse or even prevent such firings.
Of course the battle for these delivery workers is far from over. As of press time, Baur had yet to rehire them, and their attorney planned to raise the stakes and go back to court. “This time we’ll obviously order more extreme stuff” like jail time and heavy fines, said Cathy Ruckelshaus of the National Employment Law Project. Baur called the ruling “outrageous,” claiming that witnesses lied to the judge, and said he plans to appeal.
Ruckelshaus refuses to let Gristedes get off easy, either. While she prepares for trial on the larger case against the market, she plans to drag Gristedes into this latest situation, too. “They have the power to make it happen if they want.”