SEVEN MORNINGS A week, Ada Cañez swept and mopped Redwood City’s Ross Dress for Less store, scrubbed its toilets, cleaned mirrors and did everything else necessary to ready
the store for shoppers. For all her hard work, she
was paid $450 cash a month — less than minimum wage. After the first year, her pay became
sporadic, then stopped. Then her employer told
her its janitorial services contract had ended,
and her boss changed his contact information.
She could not collect her back wages.
These allegations and more were levied in
a complaint against Dublin-based Ross Stores
and subcontractor USM in a landmark class
action suit by Legal Aid of Marin, resulting
in a $1 million settlement that should provide
Cañez and hundreds of other janitors with
thousands of dollars in back wages.
The roots of this case go back to LAM staff
attorney Joanna Shalleck-Klein’s days working
at Stanford’s Community Law Clinic as a student. There, Shalleck-Klein met several janitors
who had been underpaid by subcontractors of
big box stores; like Cañez’s employer, the subcontractors would vanish without paying up.
“When I joined Legal Aid of Marin, through
our weekly clinics I happened to meet more janitors in a similar situation,” Shalleck-Klein says.
Realizing that the case was bigger than her team
at LAM could litigate on their own, Shalleck-Klein reached out to Mill Valley firm Chavez &
Gertler, Oakland’s Goldstein Borgen Dardarian
& Ho, and the Stanford Community Law Clinic.
Together they brought the suit against Ross
Stores and its leading janitorial contractor,
USM. The settlement was reached in February
and approved last month — checks should soon
be in the mail soon.
For LAM, the case was unusual in its size;
the $1.7 million in settlements LAM has cumulatively collected for workers since 2011 were on
behalf of individuals or smaller groups of employees. Legally, the case breaks ground by winning a
settlement under California’s Labor Code Section
2810, which bans companies from knowingly
underfunding contracts so that their subcontractors cannot afford to comply with the law.
“Prior to our case, most matters that had
been brought under Labor Code Section 2810
had died at the pleading stage,” mostly due to
insufficient evidence, Shalleck-Klein says.
According to the complaint, Ross subcontractor USM farmed janitorial work out to
multiple other subcontractors, which would
fold when debts to workers mounted, only to
be replaced by new subcontractors. Most of the
workers involved in the case are immigrants
who speak only Spanish, and many of the subcontractors are lo w-wage workers themselves,
These workers’ victory might be just the
first skirmish in a larger battle. Shalleck-Klein has reason to believe that the
multilayered subcontractor tactic is used
by many big box stores to underpay or
avoid paying janitors. In fact, a janitor
recently came to LAM’s clinic complaining of a similar problem with a
“Lo and behold, her employer was
one of the same subcontractors who
was a subcontractor in our case,”
An ambitious case initiated by Legal Aid of
Marin gets janitors their due. BY CARRIE KIRBY