LOS ANGELES — On the eve of Labor Day, the ACLU of Southern California and the law firm of Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick, LLP today filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court against Terra Universal, Inc., charging the multi-million dollar federal government contractor with violations of federal wage and hour laws for requiring employees to work long hours without overtime pay and systematically discriminating against Latino workers based on their race and immigration status.
Terra Universal created a two-tier system, with one set of rules for noncitizens and another for citizens. For instance, it systematically deprived workers believed to be undocumented of equal pay — in some instances paying them half what they would pay a "documented" worker in the same job — and of holiday, vacation and sick days. Terra Universal demanded "undocumented" employees work overtime to make up for days it was closed.
Plaintiff Juan Miguel Real, a manager, was paid at most $17 per hour, while his predecessor, presumed to be a citizen, was paid $32. Terra Universal required Real to work as many as 14 hours a day and on weekends and holidays without overtime wages.
"Our employment laws provide everyone equal workplace rights regardless of what country you came from, how you got here and your immigration status," said Jennie Pasquarella, ACLU/SC staff attorney. "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work is a basic American rule, with no exceptions."
Terra Universal routinely required its largely immigrant workforce — documented and undocumented alike – to work overtime hours without overtime pay. To evade government scrutiny, it created a fraudulent time system, requiring workers to clock out at the end of an 8-hour workshift and clock back in as a “second job.” Workers who complained about workplace issues or who suffered injuries were fired, had their pay deducted or their hours reduced and were verbally abused.
"Terra Universal is just one example of the countless employers nationwide who prey on the vulnerabilities of immigrant workers, believing they will never get caught. Such unscrupulous exploitation hurts all American workers, said Randy Renick, partner at Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson & Renick. "We caught Terra Universal red-handed, breaking nearly every wage and hour law in the book."
Terra Universal, based in Fullerton, California, produces "clean rooms" and other high tech laboratory equipment for NASA and the United States Navy, Army, and Air Force, as well as the private sector. Its annual sales range from $50-100M.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said, “This lawsuit represents the many abuses and tribulations immigrant workers experience on a daily basis at the hands of unscrupulous employers. Workers who are perceived to be unauthorized immigrants face even more stark exploitation. We are essentially turning a blind eye to these workers’ plight when our elected officials refuse to enforce labor laws designed to protect all workers. Instead of punishing the real culprits of abuse, what we see is families who must face hunger and homelessness when they speak up about the trials they face in the work place. Something has got to give."
Workers named in the suit include Andres Morales, Juan Miguel Real, Hugo Alcantar Fernandez, and Osfel Andrade.
Mr. Fernandez, who at one point earned the minimum wage of $7.50 per hour compared to $14 earned by U.S. citizens for doing substantially the same work and regularly worked 12 hour days without overtime pay, said: "It is cruel to take advantage of hard-working people, exploiting their need for your profit. Immigrants are people too that deserve equal rights and respect."
Top image: Hugo Alcantar, who has worked as a plastic welder at Terra Universal, Inc. for six years.
Bottom image: ACLU/SC Executive Director Ramona Ripston with (l-r) Carlos Barragan, a three-year employee and supervisor at Terra Universal; Marco Antonio Fraire, a representative from the Consulate of Mexico; Osfel Andrade, former Terra Universal employee; and ACLU/SC Legal Director Hector Villagra.