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The Patisserie Protest

Updated January 18, 2012.

Seventy former workers of Rolf's Patisserie rallied with community and religious supporters outside their recently-shuttered factory Tuesday, announcing the filing of a class-action lawsuit for violations of the WARN Act, a federal worker protection law, and denouncing the theft of their final paychecks by their former employer.

"We just want justice," said Karen Leyva, an assistant office manager at the company for six years, while standing in the shadow of her former employer. "We demand them to pay us what we worked so hard for."

Workers, some of whom had devoted over a decade to the company, were shocked to discover via their company's web site that the plant would be closing. Without warning, they were all terminated immediately, their lives unexpectedly thrown into turmoil just days before Christmas.

"It was a Christmas we're never going to forget," said Leyva. "with no money for food, rent, medicine, or gifts for our kids. It was a great injustice."

Rolf's workers were told on Dec. 10th that their plant would be briefly closed for cleaning on the 11th, but they should report as usual on Dec. 12. On the 11th, the factory's president and owner Lloyd Culbertson - a former investment banker - asked the production manager to log him into the company's web site, then demanded the worker leave the room. Thirty minutes later, workers checked the company's site. They were shocked to discover a three-sentence announcement that the plant was now closed. Culbertson had not informed any of the plant's 136 workers of the plant's impending closure; the site's announcement was the first any employee had heard that they were terminated.

Still reeling from their firings and unsure how to support their families, workers took their final paychecks - their only remaining resources - to banks and currency exchanges. They would be shocked a second time: their checks had bounced, and workers were now facing harassment from collections agencies and were responsible for debilitating fees from those same banks and currency exchanges.

"The workers were kicked while already down," said Arise Chicago Workers Center director Adam Kader. "On top of losing their jobs out of nowhere, they had the last of their earned wages blatantly stolen from them."

The WARN Act requires employers with more than 100 workers to provide at least 60 days notice of a workplace closure or 60 days severance pay - neither of which were provided to workers.

Kader says that "a poorly performing business in a slumping economy does not justify the company's actions.

"The economy is hurting everyone right now, but hard times are no excuse for breaking the law," said Kader. "These workers aren't demanding anything outlandish - just what they're legally owed."

"We earned that money," added Karen Leyva, referring to her final bounced check. "Those wages were stolen from us."


Arise Chicago builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education and organizing and advocating for public policy changes. Its Worker Center is a community resource for workers, both immigrant and native-born, to learn about their rights and join fellow workers to improve workplace conditions.


See also:

* "The fatal blow [is] likely to have been an outbreak of staphylococcus aureus-related food poisoning almost exactly a year ago, which caused over a hundred cases of foodborne illness and was traced back to Rolf's," GrubStreet Chicago reported in December.

* Rolf's Bakery To Reopen After Tainted Desserts Sickened 100.

* FDA Warning Letter.


* "The Lincolnwood, Ill.-based wholesale bakery has taken the right steps over the years, yielding 15 to 20 percent average annual sales growth since brothers Lloyd and Ford Culbertson purchased the business in 1984," Baking Management wrote in 2010.

"Lloyd, a former investment banker, is president of the company. He's the voice of the business, the numbers man and business administrator. Ford, a master baker and certified pastry chef, is the executive chef. He's the soft-spoken baker, teacher of the craft and the creative brain behind Rolf's product line and production operations."


Note: "Neither Culbertson could be reached for comment Tuesday."


UPDATE January 18, 2012: From ARISE Chicago:

After protesting the unjust closure of their factory, where workers were illegally denied 60 days notice or severance pay, 136 former Rolf's Patisserie workers have won their first victory in a larger campaign: commitment to payment of a small amount of what their former employer owes them under federal law, as part of their continuing campaign for the full amount of what is legally and morally owed them.

"It's a small fraction of what they legally owe us," says Deyanira Alvarez, a former customer service representative of Rolf's.

"If we hadn't come together, we wouldn't have these checks," said Angel Hernandez, a packing worker at Rolf's for more than a decade. "We had to get together to win."

Workers insist that receiving their final paychecks is only the beginning, as "they have been victims of multiple injustices," says Adam Kader, director of Arise Chicago Workers Center. Though they've received their final paychecks, Rolf's workers say they will continue demanding the 60 days compensation owed to them under the WARN Act.

"We're only asking for what we're owed, but look at what we have to go through," says Karen Leyva, a Rolf's employee of six years. "No one should have to fight this hard just to make their boss follow the law."

After employees worked with Arise Chicago to organize a demonstration in front of their shuttered factory, owner Lloyd Culbertson - a former investment banker - agreed to pay their final checks and accrued vacation pay. He has not, however, offered to pay workers severance - more than 80 percent of what he owes workers under law.


Comments welcome.


Posted on January 11, 2012

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