InvestigateWest has collaborated with FairWarning since 2011 to distribute stories on public health, safety and environmental issues. Below is a collection of FairWarning stories InvestigateWest has published.
Cords that kill — window-blind cords that have strangled hundreds of children — are being discontinued by a few companies that make the blinds. The moves follow years of inaction by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is now starting rulemaking on the matter. Says the CEO of one blind-maker: “I am very sorry we did not do it sooner.”
A federal judge Thursday rejected an allegation of legal corruption against BNSF Railway Co., ruling that a former company executive didn’t threaten to blackball an arbitrator to win a favorable ruling in a dispute with a fired worker. Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma, Wash., said comments made to the arbitrator by the retired BNSF executive, Roger Boldra, may have been “intemperate.” But Leighton concluded that they did not amount to corruption under the Railway Labor Act. The court ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by Richard Kite, a conductor and 27-year BNSF employee from southwestern Washington. As FairWarning has reported, Kite brought a case into arbitration to challenge his 2005 dismissal by BNSF, which said he failed two alcohol tests within 10 years. The arbitrator at the middle of the dispute, Jacalyn Zimmerman, was the neutral party on a three-member arbitration panel that also included Boldra, then BNSF’s labor relations director, and Jay Schollmeyer, a railroad union leader. Zimmerman, an arbitrator from Illinois assigned to hear Kite’s appeal by the National Mediation Board, in November 2008 circulated a draft ruling that Kite should be reinstated.
The U.S. Labor Department has scored three recent legal victories – including a ruling against DirecTV in Washington State – in its fight against the widespread use of contrived contracting schemes to illegally underpay workers. The court disputes all stem from alleged violations of minimum wage and overtime protections. In the case of DirecTV, the Labor Department won a ruling that allows its litigation to move forward against the company. A federal judge found that DirecTV qualified as a joint employer of 82 satellite dish installers in Washington State who worked for a now-defunct subcontractor called Advanced Information Systems or AIS. The Labor Department says the installers were paid piece rates for every job they did; they were not compensated for travel time between jobs or the amount of time a job took.
On a July afternoon in New Orleans last year, Philip Geeck was riding his bicycle in a marked bike lane on a busy street. Approaching an intersection, he came up alongside a tractor-trailer truck hauling a tank of chemicals. Geeck, 52, was at the 18-wheeler’s midpoint when suddenly, without signaling, the truck began to turn right, witnesses say. Victor Pizarro was driving nearby and watched in horror as the scene unfolded. He saw a look of confusion on Geeck’s face as the trailer came toward him.
When workers get cheated out of wages, it’s often not enough just to win a court order for back pay. Often the court ruling is a hollow victory because the employer has gone out of business or claims to have little or no money to pay the judgment. That’s the challenge likely facing 101 workers who a jury last month awarded $1.3 million in back pay and damages from the co-owners of a restaurant and a spa in Bellingham, Wash. A lawyer for the employers said there is no way they will be able to pay. The case, detailed in a FairWarning story InvestigateWest published last year, was brought by the U.S. Department of Labor against Huang “Jackie” Jie and Zhao “Jenny” Zeng Hong and their businesses. The government’s civil suit highlighted the issue of low-skill immigrant workers who are victims of wage theft but resist complaining to authorities because they fear retaliation by their employers.
A protest in Seattle. Photo by Alex Garland/Demotix.Karim Ameri allegedly decided to play hardball after learning that his Los Angeles recycling business was under investigation for allegedly failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime to workers putting in 60-hour weeks.Editor’s NoteInvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.Court records say Ameri pressured employees of Recycling Innovations, a string of bottle-and-can redemption centers, to lie to federal officials about his company’s pay practices. He allegedly threatened to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with U.S. Labor Department investigators.In one court document, Ameri is said to have “threatened to break an employee’s arm” — although an accountant for the business said Ameri got tripped up by language barriers and didn’t mean it as a real threat of violence.Federal officials in December took the unusual step of getting a restraining order to bar threats or interference with their investigation. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company in May agreed in a settlement to pay more than $74,000 in back wages and damages to 13 underpaid workers. Ameri declined to comment.The case reflects a fact of life about wage abuses. Violations often are concealed, and regulators hindered, because workers fear what will happen if they speak up.
A warehouse workers protest in Illinois. Photo: Peoplesworld/FlickrFor workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.Editor’s NoteInvestigateWest is proud to feature this piece by FairWarning, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmer’s Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.Victims typically are low wage, low-skilled workers desperate to hang on to their jobs. Frequently, they are immigrants—the most vulnerable and least apt to speak up. “They know that if they complain, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to take their job,” said Maria Echaveste, a former labor official during the Clinton administration who is now at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.While heart-breaking for employees, wage theft also robs federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars in taxes, and puts employers who play by the rules at a serious competitive disadvantage.
For a disabled kid found abandoned on a street corner in China at age 4, Guo Biao was doing pretty well by last fall. After a decade hidden away in a Chinese orphanage, he had landed at the apple and cherry farm run by Dwayne and Sherri Bowman near Zillah, a farming community in central Washington.Finally. A family. And also a new name: Zeke Bowman. With only a second-grade education, the teen from China was welcomed by the devout Christian family. The Bowmans helped Zeke learn English. For the first time he got a hearing aid for his deformed ear.“He was so thrilled to be here,” Sherri Bowman said.And then last October, Zeke climbed aboard one of the Bowmans’ four all-terrain vehicles, just as he’d done many times before at the end of a day in the orchards. He headed down a two-lane country road called Lucy Lane. For reasons the Bowmans still ponder, he rear-ended a tractor and died that evening in the hospital.ATV tragedies like this – on roads, rather than backcountry trails where ATVs are designed to go – are widespread and have increased in recent years. The latest U.S. figures indicate that ATV crashes kill more than 700 people and injure 100,000 others every year, with nearly two-thirds of the fatal accidents occurring on public or private roads.The accidents keep happening even though all ATVs sold in the U.S. carry a warning label stating that the vehicles are not to be driven on the road. Their high center of gravity and low-pressure tires mean they’re likely to tip over or go out of control on pavement. What’s more, the vehicles aren’t held to federal safety standards for cars and trucks, such as the requirement for seat belts, even though they can reach highway speeds.