A Landmark Settlement

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 low-wage workers themselves, Shalleck-Klein says.

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 different retailer.

“Lo and behold, her employer was one of the same subcontractors who was a subcontractor in our case,” Shalleck-Klein says.