Employee files a claim against LAZ Parking Philadelphia for unfair unemployment
After talking to a manager about labor conditions, Alia Smith was fired. Now she is filing a complaint against LAZ Parking in Philadelphia.
What do you do if you’re not happy where you work? Many would probably opt to quit for greener pastures, but what if there is no such thing? At that point, most would do what Alia Smith chose to do.
Working as a valet for LAZ Parking at Kimpton Palomar Hotel in Center City Philadelphia, Smith felt undervalued and struggled to make ends meet. She brought her complaints to her manager.
What happened next was unexpected.
“As a result, they fired me,'' alleges Smith.
According to the city of Philadelphia, there are more than 1,000 parking lot workers who earn “as little as $8.16 an hour.” A 2018 Keystone Research Center (KRC) and SEIU Local 32BJ survey stated the median parking garage wage is $9.50 per hour.
Smith made $7.25 per hour for parking about 60 cars on a bad day and between 85 to 100 cars on event nights. She also received tips but admitted they weren’t reliable.
As part of her benefits, LAZ offered health insurance that employees have to purchase. However, Smith said the service was “entirely unaffordable” for someone like her, making minimum wage.
According to the same 2018 KRC and union survey, Smith would have to work 68 hours per week to afford to live in Philadelphia. While still employed at LAZ, she was looking for a second job.
“You gotta think we work for 8 hours a day away from our families, that’s a sacrifice that many of us have to do. To bring home money that doesn’t even cover your bills is unfair,” she said.
Smith is part of 54% of parking lot workers who struggle to pay rent and other monthly expenses like, groceries, public transportation, and other utilities.
But paying bills wasn’t the only problem.
“The garage needs maintenance. The conditions are very poor [...] and workers are treated poorly,” said Smith.
It’s a statement that echoes with Daniel Turner’s concern about bug infestations and the lack of basic necessities for workers on the clock.
Smith says she attempted to reach the company countless times to make them aware of the workers’ realities but she found herself constantly hitting a wall and feeling hopeless.
“I spoke to the manager about these different things, and they kind of just brush it off like ‘this is how things have been’. I try to talk to Corporate, but they aren’t making any moves, they are not making any changes,” said Smith.
When the union got involved, Smith felt like there was a chance it could be a bridge between the company and employees.
Instead, after visiting her manager, Smith was fired and given an Employee Discipline Notice.
According to PA lawyer James F. Runckel, the Commonwealth doesn’t have a law on wrongful discharge. Meaning you can be fired for any reason, as long as it doesn’t conflict with anything on your contract.
That will soon change in Philadelphia.
On June 5, Mayor Kenney signed Bill No. 190315, which established employment protections for parking workers. According to the new legislation, parking employers must provide documentation of “just cause” and/or “bona fide economic reason” if they want to discharge a parking employee.
Up to this point, a more broad, but less specific federal law filled the void in absence of state legislation.
Runckel, while not directly addressing Smith’s situation, said he’s seen companies in the past take certain actions against employees speaking out or found to be involved with a union.
“They basically make up some reason or inappropriately make up some work rules and fire the individual,” he said. “The goal is not firing the individual, it’s what we call killing the whole organizing drive. That’s an unfair labor practice.”
On Smith’s Employee Discipline Notice, it states she was fired for “disrespecting the manager.”
With the union’s help, Smith filed a complaint against LAZ with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.
The board will review all the evidence presented by Smith and determine whether or not to pursue legal action against LAZ. If they determine there’s enough viable evidence, a hearing will be scheduled in front of a judge. Runckel said this process can take weeks or months, depending on the nature of the complaint.
If Smith’s complaint makes it to court, it wouldn’t be the first time for LAZ.
Over the years, the company has been taken to court on multiple occasions, three times for cases relating to workers' rights.
In 2010, LAZ Parking paid out a settlement of $46,000 for religious discrimination in Atlanta.
According to a press release from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), LAZ was charged for unlawfully firing a Muslim woman after she refused to remove her head covering.
Despite paying out, LAZ “denied any liability or wrongdoing.”
Robert Dawkins - then Regional Attorney for the EEOC’s Atlanta office - praised the company for working “diligently with the parties, in this case, to come to a speedy resolution.”
“Going forward, we believe LAZ Parking is sincerely committed to avoiding these types of problems,” he added.
In 2017, another legal battle arose in the company’s home state of Connecticut, when a former employee filed a class-action lawsuit over unpaid overtime wages.
In the legal document, the plaintiff alleges that he and some coworkers regularly performed more than 40 hours per week without compensation. The case has yet to be resolved.
A year later, the company was sued again by the EEOC, but this time on the grounds of national origin discrimination after laying off three workers in Baltimore.
The problem started when LAZ did away with a cashier-at-exit system in favor of new automation that allowed customers to pay their parking fees at a machine. As a result, a Moroccan customer service representative, Moroccan cashier, and Ethiopian cashier lost their jobs. Each had worked for LAZ since 2009.
When the Ethiopian cashier asked the operations manager why they were being fired, he told her it was because of their "broken English," but emphasized she was “a good and honest employee,” according to the suit.
According to the EEOC report, LAZ Parking retained two American customer service representatives who together had nine months of experience at their positions.
Both the 2017 and 2018 cases have yet to be resolved.
For Runckel just because something is legal, it does not mean it is right.
“There is no policemen regulating corporate bad behavior generally. They [LAZ] can keep violating state after state whether [it] is age discrimination, race discrimination, just plain old improper firing,” he added.
Besides federal law, Runckel believes that a union contract and protections like Bill No. 190315 are the only way to protect parking lot workers.
The bill will officially be taken into effect on September 3, 2019.
For now, Alia Smith awaits for potential legal action to her complaint against LAZ, and will join another workers’ protest set to happen Aug.15 in the streets of Philadelphia.