For Deyanira Alvarez, Rolf's Patisserie was like a second home. Not only were both her mother-in-law and brother-in-law employed there, the 25-year-old had been working at the bakery for four years. She wasn't the only one--there were entire families working at Rolf's in Lincolnwood.
Those families got some unexpected and unfortunate news just days before Christmas. On Friday, Dec. 10, they were told that the factory would be closed for the weekend for cleaning, but they should report to work Monday. But the real story was that the plant was closed for good.
The workers--134 in all--were fired from Rolf's. And when their last paychecks bounced, and their banks and credit unions began to levy fees against them, the money began to add up. Today, the workers filed a class action lawsuit alleging wage theft and failure by the employer to give 60 days notice of the closing.
"It was a total shock to everybody, and we honestly didn't expect anything like our checks to be bounced," said Alvarez, a former customer service representative at Rolf's. "We want to let other people know they have every right in the world to get what they earn."
When factory president Lloyd Culbertson showed up at the plant on Friday, he asked the production manager to log him into the company website and then asked him to leave the room. Just 30 minutes later, the employee checked the site, and saw the following:
Rolf's has been reportedly having a difficult financial run since late 2010, when a staph outbreak that caused more than 100 cases of food poisoning was linked back to the factory. Rolf's ended up recalling everything they made for the holiday season, including food from Whole Foods stores in 23 states, according to Grub Street Chicago. At the same time, the company had been planning an expansion, a new factory in Wisconsin that was nearly operation when the staph outbreak occurred.
The difficult decision to close may have been made for urgent fiscal reasons, but employees seem to have been left in the dark. While wage theft and firing without notice are not uncommon aspects of low-wage work, according to a 2010 investigation by labor policy analysts called Working Without Laws, the lawsuit alleges that Rolf's not only violated the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act but also the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which became law in 1989, requires companies to give their employees 60 days notice of mass layoffs. It applies to any business that has 100 or more employees. Interestingly enough in these economic times, it doesn't apply to government bodies.
One of the most significant applications of the act happened four years ago in Chicago at the Republic Windows and Doors plant on Goose Island. The plant, which received significant Tax Increment Financing District funding from the city, gave employees two days notice that the factory would be closing, blaming Bank of America for canceling its line of credit. The laid-off employees were told their health insurance would be cut off just weeks before Christmas, and that they wouldn't be compensated for sick time or vacation days they had accrued.
The workers, organized by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, launched a protest that would last six days and attract media attention from all over the world. Eventually, the workers and the union reached a settlement with both the company and the banks involved for their severance, health care benefits and back pay. Later, it was revealed that the plant closing was planned months in advance by CEO Rich Gillman, who planned to open a new plant in Red Oak, Iowa.
Much like the Republic Windows and Doors struggle has become iconic around the country, organizers with ARISE hope that Rolf's can also inspire other workers to fight injustice.
"By organizing we can better amplify what is happening to [Rolf's workers] and their families, and making that voice organized will allow that voice to be heard louder and farther," said Adam Kader, director of the ARISE Chicago Worker Center, about the Tuesday morning protest and announcement of the lawsuit outside Rolf's. "What we did today really showed the workers that they have power."
[UPDATED] The Chicago Reporter contacted the village of Lincolnwood to see if Rolf's had received any tax breaks or improvement funds. A new TIF district was formed last year at the intersection of Lincoln and Touhy Avenues, but Rolf's was not included in the district, according to Village manager, Timothy Wiberg, who added that the business has not received any assistance.
Will Rolf's Patisserie be the next big fight when it comes to workers' rights? We'll keep you updated as the situation progresses.
Contributing: Megan Cottrell
Photo credit: Arise Chicago
© Community Renewal Society 2011