Cleaning worker finds her voice and colleagues’ wages are lost no more

Worker advocates are calling the payment a victory for immigrant workers who organized and stood up for themselves despite their unfamiliarity with state labor laws. But it also opens a window into the complex world of the cleaning industry, where allegations of worker abuses are causing headaches both for employees of independent contractors and for the businesses that hire them.

The Boston Globe
August 20, 2009

Cleaning worker finds her voice and colleagues’ wages are lost no more
Maria Sacchetti

RigobertoCartagena.jpg

Rigoberto Cartagena, with his daughter, Andrea, and wife, Gloria Rodriguez, said he was owed $7,000. Rodriguez led the wage protest. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

Nobody was supposed to see Gloria Rodriguez. She said she usually arrived around midnight for the overnight shift at a prominent Boston restaurant to scrub floors, tables, and toilets until they sparkled. By dawn, she was gone.

But once her paychecks failed to arrive on time - or bounced - Rodriguez suddenly became a public figure in an unusual campaign against the cleaning company Coverall and the restaurants she said they cleaned, Legal Sea Foods and the Cheesecake Factory. She told her story to churches, university students, state officials, and the media, and last month to the general counsel of Coverall cleaning company, who flew up from Florida to listen.

As a result, Coverall decided to donate $40,000 to two nonprofits that aided Rodriguez and other workers like her, Centro Presente and the Chelsea Collaborative. The groups said they will use the money to pay 18 workers their lost wages today at a press conference in Boston City Hall. Each nonprofit will get $5,000 as well.

“Many people thought it wouldn’t happen,’’ said Rodriguez at her home in Somerville. Rodriguez said she was owed $1,200 in lost wages; her husband, Rigoberto Cartagena, said he was owed more than $7,000.

“It took a long time, but it was worth it,’’ she said.

Coverall general counsel Jacqueline Vlaming was unable to confirm the workers’ stories because they worked for a local franchise that has since been terminated. But she said she believed the stories and the donation was made to “make it right.’’ The donation is not a payment of wages, she said, because the company is not legally responsible for paying franchise employees.

It also addresses a public relations problem for the company, which has 5,600 franchise holders nationwide, including 250 in Boston, many of whom are minorities.

“We sell franchises and having a bad reputation in the Hispanic community, that’s huge for us,’’ Vlaming said from company headquarters in Boca Raton. “Although I have no way of verifying their claims, my brand is important to me. It wasn’t entirely a philanthropic gesture. It was goodwill in the community.’’

Worker advocates are calling the payment a victory for immigrant workers who organized and stood up for themselves despite their unfamiliarity with state labor laws.

But it also opens a window into the complex world of the cleaning industry, where allegations of worker abuses are causing headaches both for employees of independent contractors and for the businesses that hire them.

Complaints of abuses have prompted the state attorney general’s office to investigate the cleaning industry overall, said spokesman Harry Pierre.

But legal violations, as the workers found, can be difficult to prove if a subcontractor disappears, making it hard to hold anyone accountable.

Rodriguez said she was excited to get a cleaning job nearly two years ago with a local franchise of Coverall Health Based Cleaning Systems, a Florida sales and marketing company that sells franchises nationwide for $10,500 to $32,000 each.

The corporation provides a brand name and training and helps franchise holders get contracts - but it is up to each franchise to pay its workers.

Rodriguez said she cleaned for a month at the Cheesecake Factory and for more than two months at Legal Sea Foods in the Boston area and was paid less than she earned. Her husband also worked for two months and was not paid at all.

The Globe could not independently confirm their accounts. The Coverall franchise holder’s account was terminated and he could not be located for comment. Executives at Coverall, Legal Sea Foods, and the Cheesecake Factory said only the franchise holder could confirm that they worked there.

Legal Sea Foods officials said it is Coverall’s responsibility to pay its workers. However, they said they complained to Coverall on behalf of individual workers who contacted them directly, even though they are not required to do so.

Legal Sea Foods terminated the cleaning contract in 2007, on concerns about workers’ treatment, and has started hiring their own cleaners at many restaurants directly, officials said.

“We acted by terminating the agreement and by also trying to meet with the individuals and seeing if we could employ them,’’ said Heather Lacey, associate general counsel for Legal Sea Foods. “We have done more than we were legally required to do.’’

Mark Mears, The Cheesecake Factory senior vice president, said the Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based company learned about the dispute when workers picketed the restaurants in June. He said he had not previously heard workers’ complaints but the company had terminated its contract with Coverall early last year because of a variety of other issues.

He said it was unfair of Coverall’s workers to target the restaurants.

“It’s unfortunate that money that we paid to Coverall has not gotten to the actual people who did the work in our restaurants, but that’s their responsibility to pay their workers, not ours,’’ said Mears.

But the workers said they were responding to a system that seemed stacked against them. Coverall had workers willing to scrub floors all night, and the restaurants were left gleaming. But the workers were sometimes paid too little or not at all.

At first, Rodriguez considered cutting her losses and walking away.

Instead, she and other workers turned to Centro Presente, in Somerville, and the Chelsea Collaborative, for help filing confidential complaints with the state attorney general’s office.

After more than a year of waiting, the workers and the nonprofits decided to take their complaints public.

The nonprofits said they are distributing the checks today to workers in the amounts that they say they are owed.

“This is going to open the eyes of immigrant workers,’’ said Centro Presente executive director Patricia Montes. “They’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, they have to respect us.’ ’’

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

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