Perfection Foods Company, in North Philly, sued for exploiting workers
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Former employees of the gourmet hors d'oeuvres production plant Perfection Foods are suing the company, saying they were paid less than minimum wage for work weeks as long as 72 hours.
Many of the workers who’ve stepped forward so far are Central Americans. Though potentially hundreds of workers, including many contracted through temporary employment agencies, may be owed back wages, so far the plaintiffs are a relatively small group. Lawyers from Community Legal Services’ Employment division are hoping to be in touch with as many workers and ex-workers of the plant as possible before the end of September.
“The laws say that you deserve to be paid minimum wage and overtime no matter your immigration status,” said Nadia Hewka, one of the attorneys handling the case. “Even those who may have worked under a different name or an alias are still entitled to be paid for all of the hours that they worked and for overtime.”
How can people stay there? I don’t understand why people don’t demand their rights, why they don’t speak out. Sometimes I feel guilty, remembering that I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t know anything about this place, I didn’t know that they were exploiting us.
Scarlet (not her real name) is one of the plaintiffs in the case. She came to the United States from Honduras in 2013, and had to find work right away, as she was in debt from her journey and was also supporting her mother and daughter, who'd stayed behind in the countryside. A friend’s brother told her about Perfection Foods, and soon she was on her feet in the plant’s freezer room every day from 6 in the morning till at least 6 at night—and sometimes later.
“At 5 pm—supposedly—everyone had to leave, because the [Health and Safety] inspector was arriving,” she said. “So what they [the managers] did was tell us to go to the dressing area where we put on our work clothes and wait till he left.”
Once they’d seen the inspector’s car leave the lot, the employees emerged from bathrooms and dressing rooms, punched in again, and continued working until 6, 7, 8 at night. This overtime, though supposedly recorded through the punchcards, was never reflected in the quantity of cash she received at the week’s end: about $170. Even if Scarlet had only been paid for a 40-hour week, that salary is equal to $4.25 an hour, significantly less than minimum wage.
“Everyone complained, ‘Oh, I didn’t get anything, this money isn’t enough, what will I do with it?’” Scarlet recalled. As soon as she could find another job, she quit. “How can people stay there? I don’t understand why people don’t demand their rights, why they don’t speak out. Sometimes I feel guilty, remembering that I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t know anything about [this place], I didn’t know that they were exploiting us.”
In Pennsylvania, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and overtime pay for hours worked beyond the 40-hour workweek should be at least 1.5 times that. But at Perfection Foods, not only were employees paid significantly less, sometimes their hours and deductions weren't accurately recorded. What’s more, Scarlet says that while working at the plant, she was forced to punch out on her timecard if she needed to eat lunch or use the bathroom.
Even if Scarlet had only been paid for a 40-hour week, that salary is equal to $4.25 an hour, significantly less than minimum wage.
Scarlet had never worked in an industrial setting before her job at Perfection Foods, “a very bad experience.” After she was finished at the plant, she never considered going back; in fact, the thought of it had her “biting her nails.” Instead, she found work cleaning houses, a job which pays nearly five times what she was making before.
It’s important, she said, “that your work be valued. My new boss never bothers me, never,” even though there’s always work to do.
When asked about the case, Bob Burke, an attorney representing Perfection Foods, responded that his client “denies [the plaintiff’s] allegations and will vigorously defend against the claims in court.”
Hewka, for her part, encouraged current and former employees of Perfection Foods to reach out to her office without fear of retaliation. "We are glad to answer people's questions if they contact us."
If you or someone you know has worked at the plant, you can call Johanna Greenberg, a colleague of Hewka’s who speaks fluent Spanish, at 215-981-3749.