Oakland Airport Businesses Flout Living Wage Law 

The owners of Subway and Jamba Juice outlets are refusing to reinstate employees who were fired after they complained about the violations.

Earlier this year, investigators for the Port of Oakland determined that some businesses at Oakland International Airport had violated the port's living wage ordinance and had retaliated against employees who had complained. However, as of last week, those businesses had refused to reinstate fired employees or pay them the money they're owed, according to activists for the union Unite Here.

The Express first reported last year about the union's battle with the airport employers and the allegations that the businesses were not paying high-enough wages under port regulations and had failed to provide overtime pay and paid time off. Originally, employees made allegations of wrongdoing against four companies: J.R. Lester & Associates, which operates a See's Candy and an Auntie Anne's outlet at the airport; Almison Restaurants, which operates a Burger King; NNF Grewals LLC, which runs a Subway; and CMC Services, which operates a Jamba Juice franchise.

After a six-month investigation, port investigators concluded in January that the owners of the Subway and Jamba Juice had violated a provision of the port's living wage law that requires employees to receive twelve days of paid time off each year. The port determined that those businesses had failed to provide paid time off to four employees: Hakima Arhab, Hayat Selmani, and Liam Adhikari, who all worked at Subway, and Diamond Ford, who worked at Jamba Juice.

But Unite Here pressed further and filed an appeal, demanding that Arhab and Ford, who were both fired from their jobs after they had filed complaints with the port, be reinstated to their positions as well. Following an appeals hearing, the port agreed, and on April 10 ordered Navdeep and Gurinder Grewal, who run NNF Grewal LLC, the operator of the Subway, and CMC Services, which operates the Jamba Juice, to reinstate Arhab and Ford, respectively.

After the hearing, Arhab was ecstatic. "It was awesome," she said of the decision. "They [Grewals] couldn't even defend themselves. The owner kept giving them different stories."

Neither the Grewals nor Joey Cook, owner of CMC Services, responded to requests for comment for this report.  

They also have failed to implement the port's rulings. According to Unite Here organizer Sarah Norr, the port's deadline for restoring paid-time off was April 13, and it was May 18 for reinstating Arhab and Ford to their jobs. At a recent port commission meeting, Norr compared the actions of Subway and Jamba Juice to those of Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, which had locked out workers until Unite Here won a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which then threatened heavy fines against the club. "I see a lot of the same dynamics playing out here with Jamba Juice and Subway," Norr told port commissioners on April 9. "They don't believe they will face consequences. You can't gently persuade them. You have to enforce the policy."

Unless the port exerts its authority and takes steps like the NLRB did with Castlewood, then employers at the airport may believe that they can get away with openly violating the port's living wage law, Norr added.

Oakland voters originally approved the city's Living Wage Ordinance in 2002. The law is intended to pay employees of businesses that have contracts with the city and the port at a rate higher than the state's minimum wage. Currently, the law requires that workers receive at least $11.70 per hour with health care and $13.45 per hour without it. In addition, the living wage law requires employers to give workers twelve days of paid time off each year. These requirements, however, only applied to employers with more than twenty workers. In 2006, port commissioners amended the law to include all subcontractors that wanted to do business with the port.

Yet despite the port's investigation, the Grewals filed an appeal, arguing that the port commission overstepped its authority in 2006 when it amended the law. "The port does not have the authority to amend a City Charter provision approved by the voters," Michael Foster, the Grewals' attorney, said in an email.

The port, however, rejected the Grewals' appeal, noting that the owners of the Subway franchise had previously agreed to abide by the living wage law. After Unite Here won its appeal on Arhab's reinstatement, Foster admitted that he didn't expect that the port would grant his appeal. "But we were required to go through the process to proceed to the Superior Court," he said, referring to the legal requirement that his clients had to file an appeal with the port before taking their case to court. "We are confident that the employers will ultimately prevail."

But if the port's investigation is any indication, the Grewals' fight in court promises to be an uphill battle. Port investigators described Gurinder Grewal (Navdeep and Gurinder Grewal run NNF Grewal LLC but Gurinder is the primary manager of the airport Subway) in their report as the least credible person they interviewed. The report stated that Gurinder Grewal's lack of credibility deserved "special attention" because she seemed "singularly focused on telling the investigator what he wanted to hear with no regard to actual events."

Employees also allege that the Grewals have violated state overtime law. Arhab contends that the Grewals work employees at different Subway locations consecutively to avoid paying overtime. The State Labor Commission is scheduled to hear the charges on May 31.

The violations concerning Jamba Juice and CMC Services are less clear-cut, however. The port's investigation found wrongdoing by both the employer and the employee, although it ultimately ruled that Jamba Juice owed Ford back pay for failing to give her paid time off.  

As for J.R. Lester & Associates, the owners of the See's Candy and Auntie Anne's franchises, the port ruled that they were exempt from the living wage law because their businesses began operating at the airport before the 2006 amendment and thus were grandfathered in. See's Candy currently only pay employees $9 an hour.

Regardless, the above cases only scratch the surface of what's been happening at the airport. Currently, nineteen employees have filed complaints regarding living wage or state labor law violations.

Correction: The original version of this report misidentified the Oakland airport Subway owner who had been singled out by port investigators. It was Gurinder Grewal -- not Navdeep Grewal.

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