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Janitors Sue Supermarket Chains, Claim Labor Laws Were Violated

LOS ANGELES - Hundreds of janitors in California have joined a class action lawsuit against Safeway, Albertsons, Vons and Ralph's supermarkets, as well as Encompass Staffing Services and its subsidiary, Building One Service Solutions, accusing them of paying cleaners less than minimum wage and making them work excessive hours without overtime pay, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The janitors and their attorneys have started an outreach program in San Francisco and Los Angeles to find more of the thousands of workers they estimate could join the suit as plaintiffs. According to lawyers, a large number of the janitors are immigrants with little knowledge of U.S. labor laws.

The lawsuit, Flores v. Albertsons, claims that the workers are illegally referred to as independent contractors, although the supermarkets make up their schedules and oversee their work. That arrangement, according to the suit, has saved the chains millions of dollars in overtime pay, payroll taxes and workers' compensation insurance.
The suit is seeking $100 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Safeway spokesman Alexander Winslow disputes the idea that the janitors should be grocery store employees and said the cleaning companies are responsible for obeying labor laws. "With our contractors, we have provisions in our contract that require that they comply with all federal and state laws and regulations, including the minimum wage," Winslow said.

According to Ken Jacobs, a labor policy specialist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, who notes that subcontracting of janitorial services has become a common means of driving down salaries and benefits, such lawsuits help ensure compliance with labor laws. "It puts the onus back on the firm that's doing the outsourcing," he said. "It's the only way you'll get compliance."

Those who wish to join the suit, which is scheduled to come to trial in Los Angeles in June, must come forward by April 19, a federal judge handling the case advised. This includes workers who worked between January 1994 and January 2003.
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