Area Taco Bells Fire 28, Worker Center Responds
By David Johansen, Union Labor News Contributor
Twenty eight Latino workers were fired from six Madison Taco Bells on March 24 because of questions about their work status. As the workers were lead out the back door, they were given no opportunity to contest management's decision.
None had the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
That changed on May 14 when fifteen workers, with tenure ranging from 4 to 13 years, met with clergy at a meeting assembled at the Workers' Rights Center.
According to Workers' Rights Center Director, Patrick Hickey, the firings of Taco Bell employees gets to the heart of the confusion about the Social Security Administration (SSA) “no match” letters. The no match letters are sent by the SSA to certain employers with a list of employees whose names and Social Security numbers do not match SSA records.
But the SSA states there are many reasons why a worker's name might not match the social security number in the SSA database, including clerical errors, name changes due to marriage or divorce, or incomplete information on a W-4 or W-2 form.
What specifically triggered the recent firings at Taco Bell is unclear, according to Hickey. But what is clear, Hickey said, is the only obligation of an employer upon receipt of a Social Security no match letter, is to notify the employee, not take disciplinary action. In fact, Hickey said, the Social Security Administration's clear position is that employers should not “take any adverse action against an employee, such as laying off, suspending, firing or discriminating against an individual just because his or her social security number appears on the no match list.”
Prior to the Taco Bell incidents in Madison, Saul Castillo, WRC board president, got wind of similar firings last December at Pizza Hut restaurants in Chicago also owned by Yum Brands, the same company that owns Taco Bell, KFC, A&W, and Long John Silver brands. Castillo is concerned these firings may represent a change in policy by Yum Brands – one of the largest restaurant companies in the world – and other large corporations at the national level.
But as a result of the Taco Bell firings in Madison, local Latino workers are fighting back: Discrimination charges have been filed by twenty-one workers with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and now they are beginning to speak out publicly.
As the workers told their stories last week to a group of clergy in a small, packed room in the Workers Rights Center, common themes emerged: lack of notification of termination, inequitable pay and work conditions, strong feelings of betrayal, and struggling to pay the rent while having kids to support.
Describing the morning he was fired, one worker said, “I’d worked at Taco Bell nine years, I felt hurt, I’d only been absent one day in my nine years, and felt like it was an attack on my dignity to be lead out the back door with no explanation.” Another worker explained “new hires are making the same wage as me after I’d worked at Taco Bell for five years.” Other workers described having caps on their wages well below the norm, rules against speaking Spanish to Spanish speaking customers, having breaks denied and being the first to be sent home when work slowed.
“What’s happened at Taco Bell,” Hickey points out, “shows how vulnerable workers are while our immigration law is in a state of flux. The system is clearly broken,” Hickey continued, “until it's fixed, workers can be exploited like this.”
The law regarding no match letters is currently stuck in the courts. During the Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security attempted to change the rule, however a U.S. District Court in California blocked their attempts.
Until the rule is clarified by the court, corporations who fire employees after receiving a no match letter may be violating the law. But even if the court eventually accepts the rule change, employers are directed to give employees ninety days to correct any alleged mismatch.
In Madison, Taco Bell workers are coming up with new strategies to take their side of the story to the public. “Right now,” according to Hickey, “the goal is to get the workers back to work.” With that goal, Taco Bell workers are reaching out to church congregations, labor groups, community organizations and student groups to speak about their struggle. In kicking off their outreach efforts, Taco Bell workers spoke at the Immigration Rights rally on May Day and distributed over 600 flyers. Additionally, three workers spoke to SCFL delegates on Monday, May 18 and asked for support in winning back their jobs.
As Union Labor News goes to press, a protest is planned for May 26 at the Park St. Taco Bell restaurant.
– David Johansen is a social worker who lives and works in Madison, WI. Inspired by the struggle of P-9/Hormel Packinghouse workers in Austin, Minnesota in the mid-1980's, Johansen worked with the Twin Cities Support Committee for Local P-9. He plans to be a regular volunteer contributor for Union Labor News.