Levi Strauss loses worker lawsuit
September 09, 1997 | By OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
A Texas jury found Levi Strauss & Co. guilty of discriminating against five El Paso factory workers, ordering the San Francisco-based jeans maker to pay more than $600,000 in compensatory damages.
“I am happy and satisfied with the verdict the jury has reached,” said Vicente Delgadillo, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I feel vindicated, and hopefully this will serve as an example for Levi to treat their injured employees in a more humane manner.”
The garment workers accused the company of forcing them into a job re-entry program that exposed them to ridicule, humiliation and harassment from other factory workers and managers.
More than 110 plaintiffs who sew Levi’s garments in a number of El Paso factories are suing the company, claiming the re-entry program was created to get rid of employees receiving workers’ compensation benefits for job-related injuries and disabilities.
Levi responded to Monday’s decision with a promise it would appeal.
“The company feels that it has strong grounds for a successful appeal to reverse this verdict and plans to file a variety of motions in the coming days,” Levi said in a statement.
The 11-member jury handed down the unanimous decision in El Paso County Court. Pending appeal, plaintiffs Juana Lucero, Maria Elena Gomez, Sofia Cardona, Leticia Pacheco and Delgadillo would split the compensatory damages awarded Monday. Punitive damages were to be considered Tuesday.
The plaintiffs testified that as part of the re-entry program, they were paraded through the Airway Boulevard plant cafeteria and humiliated in front of other employees, the El Paso Times and the El Paso Herald Times-Post reported.
The workers also testified that Levi plant managers told them that job-related injuries, which included carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back pains, “were in their heads.”
However, a Levi personnel director in El Paso said during testimony that the company’s re-entry program was designed to bring injured workers back to the plants slowly, provide training activities and insurance counseling, and help find less taxing jobs for the injured workers at the plants, the El Paso papers reported.
The plaintiffs claim they were forced to work at lower wages when they returned to work. Some workers say their wages were trimmed to $4.25 from $9 an hour.
In addition, the workers say they were given a list of jobs to do, including cleaning bathrooms, as part of their participation in the re-entry program.
The plaintiffs testified that Levi managers – without employees’ knowledge or consent – contacted workers’ doctors, requesting that they allow their patients to quit treatment and instead participate in the company’s re-entry program.
The program started in October 1993 and was disbanded in February 1994, said Lark Fogel, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
In a statement Levi said, “The Company continues to vigorously deny all of the plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the company’s 1993 and 1994 return to work program at its El Paso manufacturing facilities.”
James Scherr, another lawyer for the Levi workers, said the program was conducted for eight hours a day in a trailer at Levi’s Airway Boulevard manufacturing plant – one of seven Levi facilities in El Paso – but “no training, no lectures” were provided to the workers, he said. “Levi personnel was there very seldomly,” said Scherr.
Now other Levi factory workers in El Paso reportedly fear that the lawsuit will lead to the company to close its plants, which employ about 4,000, and move to Mexico for cheaper labor and resources.
Cindy Arnold, development coordinator for La Mujera Oberera, a low-income workers advocacy group in El Paso, said the suit has hit a nerve in the community. She also said she believes plant closures and job losses are inevitable, but not because of the lawsuit. Market forces will drive those decisions, she said.
“I have no doubt Levi plants will leave,” Arnold said, noting that three other clothing manufacturing plants have closed in El Paso during the past month. “It’s just a question of time.”
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