On January 9, 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced the filing of a lawsuit on behalf of eight immigrant workers who are seeking unpaid wages and overtime from Universal Distribution Center, a locally-based corporation that operates a chain of 99¢ and bargain stores throughout the New York/New Jersey region. The workers' claims, brought on behalf of themselves and all current and former employees dating back to 1994, challenge the cruel and unlawful working conditions they faced while employed by Universal Distribution, including long hours without adequate wages or overtime, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, discriminatory abuse and retaliation for speaking out about their rights.
“When a worker refused to work two or three days in a row without returning home, the manager would deceive us,” stated Fernando Islas, one of the plaintiffs. “They would tell us that they had some things to take care and would leave, locking us inside the store overnight and not returning until the next day.”
“This case shows that sweatshops are not a problem across the ocean or even across Hudson River,” explained Jennifer Ching, staff attorney for the ACLU-NJ's Immigrant Workers' Rights Project. “Sweatshops are thriving here in New Jersey, on every street corner, even in the 99¢ stores of our communities.”
Ching, further added, “Employees in New Jersey are protected by basic wage and hour laws. By asserting their legal rights, these immigrant workers are making the larger statement that we will no longer tolerate the blatant exploitation of our communities.” The lawsuit, Cruz et al. v. Universal Distribution Center, LLC et al. was filed in the US District Court for the District of New Jersey.
In August 1999, the workers filed a wage and hour complaint with the New Jersey Department of Labor. Over one year later, after a stalled investigation and negotiations, the workers decided to take their case to court. Their complaint outlines several typical instances of the abuse faced by the workers, including shifts spanning 24 to 72 hours at a time, being locked in the stores overnight by the defendants, and having to endure continual racial harassment.