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Oregon Workers Win Class Action Against Taco Bell

Labor: Employees of the Irvine chain contended time cards were changed so managers could earn productivity bonuses.

March 13, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Thousands of former and current Taco Bell Corp. workers in Oregon have won a lawsuit that contended their time cards were doctored so managers could meet productivity deadlines and get bonuses.

The verdict by a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury was announced Monday by an attorney for workers who filed the class-action lawsuit against the Irvine-based chain.

Damages and penalties could run into millions of dollars, said Paul Breed, an attorney for the workers. About 1,300 current and former workers who have filed claims seeking unpaid wages will share in any damages. The rest of the 13,739 workers in the class-action case will have to pursue claims individually, Breed said.

The case is among a series of lawsuits accusing well-known companies, from Albertsons markets to Nordstrom department stores, of wage violations. In many cases, companies were accused of cheating on overtime by pressuring employees to work "off the clock" or improperly classifying them as exempt from receiving overtime.

A lawsuit in Santa Clara Superior Court contended Taco Bell failed to pay overtime to 2,000 assistant managers and 1,000 managers throughout California. After a month of trial, the company agreed Feb. 26 to settle the lawsuit for $9 million--a deal that must be approved by the judge and the workers, said plaintiffs attorney Steve Crandall of San Luis Obispo.

Taco Bell settled another lawsuit in Washington state in 1997, resulting in nearly $3 million in payments to more than 2,100 current and former Taco Bell workers.

At a news conference Monday, former Taco Bell supervisors said they had been pressured by Taco Bell upper managers to shave hours off employees' time cards.

"I was a single mother," said Brandi Bravo, who worked her way up from the food production crew to shift manager or supervisor and reported to salaried managers. "I knew if I didn't keep labor where it had to be at, then somebody else would have my job and I wouldn't have one."

Taco Bell attorney Bob Weaver said the company has a strict labor policy and said any wage violations were isolated incidents. He said he would seek judicial review of the verdict before deciding whether to appeal.

When made aware of complaints, Taco Bell responded quickly, firing some managers, he said.

Weaver noted the jury rejected several claims in the class-action lawsuit, including allegations that Taco Bell systematically failed to pay overtime, pressured workers to make bank deposits after their day ended, and forced them to wait past their scheduled start times to clock in.

"I know the evidence in this case did not support the very broad, sweeping claims that were made," Weaver said, noting the last claim made was in 1996.

The jury found Taco Bell liable in a verdict handed down Friday. Damages and penalties will be determined in a separate trial this spring or summer, Breed said.

Judi Christensen, also a former shift supervisor, said managers made it clear they needed supervisors like her to keep payroll to a minimum so managers could meet productivity guidelines that would earn them a bonus of $30,000 to $50,000 at the end of the year.

She said she told her workers--mostly young people and minorities--exactly what she was doing, and apologized.

More than 13,000 Taco Bell workers and former employees in Oregon were eligible to file claims before the end of March 2000.

The class-action lawsuit covered alleged incidents at company-owned Taco Bell restaurants across Oregon from 1993 through 1996. Restaurants managed separately by franchise owners were not included.

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Times staff writer E. Scott Reckard and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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