Quick Hit Brandon Campbell Monday June 4th, 2012, 10:33am

Chicago Worker Claims Exploitation, Demands Back Pay

A bridal shop worker, who claims she was exploited then fired by her former employer, was joined by a group of labor-rights activists in a picket line outside of the Little Village Discount Mall on the city’s West Side Saturday afternoon.

Noemi Hernandez, a 22-year-old single mother, said she’s worked at Gislex Bridal, located in the mall, since last July but was fired on May 4th after complaining to her employer, Maribel Flores, that she wasn’t earning minimum wage or being paid for overtime work.

Hernandez contacted Arise Chicago, a worker’s rights organization, and together they sent a letter detailing the “wage theft” to Flores. Hernandez said she was fired because of the letter, and repeated attempts to contact Flores have been unsuccessful.

“I decided that it was enough. I thought that this lady was taking advantage of all of us,” said Hernandez, referring to her co-workers, who she said were also not being paid legally. “I am trying to get whatever is fair.”

Hernandez is just one of hundreds of low-wage workers in Chicago, many of whom are undocumented, who are paid less than minimum wage and denied legally required overtime bonuses, according to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study titled “Unregulated Work in Chicago” includes a survey of 1,140 Chicago-area workers with over 60 percent of them saying they were paid a wage that was at least over a dollar below the legal minimum.

In November, Arise Chicago held a similar action in which workers picketed local car washes for not adhering to minimum wage laws.

Although Hernandez declined to comment on her immigrant status, an immigrant-worker’s rights organization told the Chicago Tribune that it is illegal for employers to pay their workers, undocumented or otherwise, anything less than minimum wage.

According to Hernandez, employees at Gislex Bridal are paid between $55 and $60 a day for working an average of about 10 hours per shift without breaks. She claims she is owed a total of $9,700, with $4,130 to compensate for Illinois’ $8.25 an hour minimum wage, another $5,070 for overtime, and $500 from her final paycheck.

Darrah Sipe, an organizer with Arise Chicago, said Flores’s attorney offered to pay Hernandez $500 to settle the disagreement. But Sipe said that’s not enough because under Illinois law Hernandez is entitled to the aforementioned back pay. She also said they want to avoid going to court because Arise wants the workers to feel empowered.

“We prefer to avoid litigation because it’s much more important for the worker to self-actualize in the sense that they can say 'I have the power to recoup these wages and I don’t need a lawyer',” Sipe said in an interview following the picketing. “But oftentimes when [lawyers] get involved the worker loses all involvement in the case.”

Minutes before they began picketing, the group of activists joined Hernandez when she entered the discount mall, which consists of vendor-owned booths offering products like paintings, clothing, and jewelry. Hernandez tried to contact Flores to discuss her wages face to face.

Though some members of the group said they saw Flores on the premises, which could not be independently verified, Flores did not make an appearance. Before leaving the mall, Hernandez handed another letter addressed to Flores to one of her former co-workers.

Sipe said Hernandez and Arise Chicago will continue to picket Gislex Bridal and will pursue contact with Flores over the next few weeks.

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