A major firm providing laundry services to business and governments nationwide has agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by hundreds of Southern California laundry workers who alleged the company violated Los Angeles' "living wage" laws.
Cintas Corp., which operates industrial laundries and other facilities in the United States and Canada, denied any wrongdoing but agreed to settle the 5 -year-old case "in order to avoid the additional expense and distraction of ongoing litigation," the Cincinnati-based company said in a statement.
Labor leaders who helped file the complaint said it was believed to be the largest monetary amount ever paid for alleged violations of living wage ordinances, which set salary and benefit standards for contractors and other firms engaged in government business.
The settlement provides $3.3 million in back wages and interest for more than 500 laundry employees who worked at Cintas facilities in Ontario, Pico Rivera and Whittier, according to Workers United/Service Employees International Union, which assisted in the lawsuit. The remainder of the $6.5 million goes to penalties and legal fees arising from the case.
"It took a long time, but the wait was worth it," said Blanca Arriaga, 57, a Cintas employee who has worked at the Whittier site 18 years and says she earns about $11 an hour. "We were losing hope, so we're glad it was finally settled."
Workers United/SEIU is spearheading a continuing effort to unionize industrial laundries, including Cintas, which is a largely non-union employer. Labor leaders say laundry workers, often immigrants, toil for long hours in difficult jobs, typically earning $9 to $12 an hour. Industrial laundries wash, sort and iron uniforms, tablecloths and other items.
Union leaders said the Southern California case was indicative of labor practices at Cintas, which employs about 30,000 workers in the United States and Canada. The Los Angeles settlement comes almost a year after Cintas, which reported $3.8 billion in revenue in fiscal 2009, was ordered to pay $1.4 million to resolve a similar complaint by laundry workers in Northern California.
Robin Everhart, Cintas' vice president of government affairs, said the company "always made it a point to comply fully with all federal, state and local wage and hour laws." Everhart, who is also Cintas' chief compliance officer, said union leaders encouraged the two California suits "in an effort to tarnish our company's good reputation."
Jason Oringer, a spokesman for Workers United, said Cintas' image problems stemmed from violating wage laws. "This is not an attack on Cintas' image," he said. "It's an effort to help workers recover wages that they're legally entitled to."
In the lawsuit, workers argued that Cintas was required to comply with the L.A. living wage ordinance because of laundry contracts with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Cintas contended that the ordinance did not apply because the employees worked fewer than 20 hours a month on DWP jobs. An appellate panel rejected Cintas' argument.
Currently, affected contractors, concessionaires and others doing city business with the city of Los Angeles must pay workers at least $11.55 an hour, or $10.30 an hour plus $1.25 an hour in health benefits. By contract, the California minimum wage is $8 an hour.