Oakland determined that Prudential owed workers at its Milpitas plant nearly $40,000 in back wages, which Prudential initially paid. After further investigation and submission of more company documents, the city determined that Prudential owed an additional $78,000 in back wages to 52 workers. Oakland calculated a total of $124,000 owed to employees over a two-year period. After initial protest, the company agreed to settle for that amount this past April, but admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

In San Diego, where Prudential had been doing business with the city for 15 years before the ordinance passed, problems arose during contract renewals in 2006, before the union became involved. Prudential argued that its wages-and-benefits package—which included a 401(k) plan and company "profit sharing"—was competitive enough to override the new living-wage requirement.

In e-mails between Prudential officials and city employees from the purchasing division, the city seemed to accept Prudential's logic and asked repeatedly for the documents demonstrating employee benefits. Prudential's Vista plant manager, Bryan Harris, signed two contract renewals, specifically agreeing to abide by the living-wage ordinance, in July and November of 2006.

Priscilla Iezzi
Elva Lopez, Isabel PeŮa, Lupe Valle, Maria Paniagua and Lupe Ortegon of Prudential's Riverside facility say they deserve a living wage
Not your neighborhood laundromat: A typical industrial laundry machine holds hundreds of pounds of dirty clothes
Not your neighborhood laundromat: A typical industrial laundry machine holds hundreds of pounds of dirty clothes

In January 2007, however, Harris crossed out the living-wage sentence, stating in a fax to the city that he was "not authorized to verify" the company's compliance with the ordinance. He sent an e-mail to the mayor expressing his disappointment over the city's new requirements, saying Prudential would not be able to comply in the future.

When UNITE HERE filed their complaints with the city last summer, San Diego immediately canceled its contracts with Prudential and proceeded with an investigation. The city made requests for payroll documentation and proof of living-wage payments, and then determined the company had not complied with the contract. Prudential said it did not owe back wages and rejected the city's request.

The city attorney's office filed a lawsuit against the company last September, alleging Prudential violated its contractual agreement; the suit, currently in litigation, asked for $1.8 million in back wages and fines. Prudential spokesman Martin would only say, "We deny all allegations, and we're fighting the lawsuit filed with the city, and depositions in this case have commenced." Now, the company's policy is for facility managers to turn over possible living-wage contracts to corporate offices in Irvine for review. "If we can't comply with the ordinance, then we won't enter into the contract," Martin says.

*     *      *

On a recent, hot morning at the Riverside Prudential plant, the mostly female band of workers are huddled at breakroom tables for a safety-training luncheon. Just beyond them are the hulking washing machines, conveyor belts, wet floor mats and carts full of towels. A slightly bleachy, sudsy smell hangs in the air.

Plant superintendent Robert Elkins says the taco lunch is to thank employees for having completed the training sessions, which were spurred by employees and the union after the sulfuric acid accident in Vista.

Like their co-workers in Vista, Peña and the women around the table say this is the first they've ever received in the way of tailored safety training. The instruction consisted of four 15- to 30-minute sessions that hardly touched on the work that she and her co-workers do, she says. Initially, the videos the women were shown were in English with a Spanish interpreter on hand to translate. But, Peña says, because they felt the interpreter was inadequate, she and others asked that the videos be subtitled, which happened for the next training session.

"The second week of training, they took us to see the washing-machine stations and the drying stations. But we didn't go to our stations," she says of the rest of the facility, which includes the pant- and shirt-press stations, the distribution stations, where clean uniforms are sorted, areas where dirty uniforms are received and towel stations. "Four people out of 72 use the washing machines. . . . I agree we need to be aware of them, but we never went to our area, and we're the biggest group."

"This lunch we had today is because we're done with the safety training. But what did they teach in safety training? Nothing that had to do with what we're doing," says Lupe Valle, a distribution-station worker. "They trained us on rooftop safety, but that's work the mechanic does, not us. They didn't give us training that pertained to our jobs."

Peña and other workers have pressed Elkins and other managers for training that involves the repetitive-stress-related injuries that can often lead to other injuries or accidents, she says.

"We've seen a lot of accidents happen, the death of this señor at Cintas, the chlorine gas accident last year, things that have made us say, caramba, I thought I worked somewhere where these things don't happen, but they do happen at laundries, and we want to feel safe," she says.

Lupe Ortegon, who folds towels and has worked in Riverside for nine years, sits on a safety committee that meets monthly. "We don't have a first-aid kit, and they've promised us one for several years," she says. "We have to stay on top of them for anything to get done."

The least the company could do, says Peña, is pay her and her co-workers the money they were—and are—supposed to be earning under the living-wage ordinances. "It might make the rest of this a little bit more bearable," she says. After nearly 19 years, she makes $9.11 per hour. She says she will no longer tolerate the yearly 10-cent raises she's always received. "We live with constant worry, from paycheck to paycheck, and all the while, I've watched the company grow and grow over the years," she says. "It's good that it grows, but not if it's at our expense."

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