Ten workers at a Walmart supplier's Southern California warehouse said they were suspended indefinitely Friday after taking a five-minute break in temperatures of more than 90 degrees.
The workers said they believe they were suspended from the Olivet International warehouse in Mira Loma, about an hour east of Los Angeles, in retaliation for raising concerns about working conditions over the last few months. The suspended workers, joined by a couple dozen supporters, picketed Wednesday morning in front of the warehouse to protest the suspensions.
Ricardo Hernandez, 21, said he had worked at the warehouse full time for a year until Friday. "We take heat breaks two or three times a day," Hernandez told HuffPost. "But then on Friday, they told us they were suspending us for taking a heat break.
"I want management to hear us and take a walk in our shoes to see what we go through every day. This warehouse is really tough to work in under such hot temperatures with no cool water," he said.
Hernandez said that when he and his coworkers have asked for water or raised safety concerns about speeding or overloaded forklifts, "They ignore us. They take us as a joke." Still, he said he wants to return to work because his pay helps support his parents and young niece.
Olivet International did not respond to HuffPost's requests for comment. Walmart declined to comment, referring questions to Olivet.
Warehouse Workers United, a labor union that supports the workers but does not officially represent them, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board for each of the 10 suspended workers.
Olivet International, a privately held company, designs, manufactures and distributes handbags, luggage and apparel, according to its website. Workers at the warehouse in Mira Loma unpack, label and load boxes of Olivet handbags and luggage. Olivet managers told workers in a meeting that about 70 percent of its business goes to Walmart, two workers said. Hernandez said about half of the truck traffic at the warehouse is Walmart rigs.
Olivet's other customers include Big Lots, Bloomingdales, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl's, Macy's, Marshalls, Nordstrom, Ross, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sam's Club, Sears, Target and T.J. Maxx, the company says on its website.
Guadalupe Palma, director of Warehouse Workers United, said all 10 suspended workers participated in a two-day strike in late July. About 30 of the roughly 200 workers at the warehouse in Mira Loma participated in the strike to protest what they said was intimidation, spying and retaliation for raising concerns about working conditions.
The union in May filed a complaint with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging blocked fire exits, inadequate access to water and collapses of towers of boxes. State workers inspected the warehouse following the complaint. The investigation is still ongoing and should conclude about end of November, Greg Siggins, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, told HuffPost.
Soon after the inspection, the warehouse installed video cameras in employee break rooms and brought in consultants who advised workers not to discuss working conditions, Hernandez and another worker said.
"There's even [a camera] by the restroom. They can see every time you go the restroom," Hernandez said. "I think they're trying to intimidate us, to see every move we make."
Heidi Baizabal, a single mother of four who had worked at the warehouse for five years before being suspended, said supervisors expressed worry in recent months when warehouse workers began organizing. “They were telling us that the Walmart company, which is one of their main clients, was going to leave, and we’d wind up without work," she said.
Baizabal said she believes her suspension was retaliation for the July strike and for asking for better working conditions. “I feel bad. I feel depressed because my family depends on this," Baizabal told HuffPost in Spanish. “We want Walmart to take responsibility and put pressure on Olivet to give us a secure job with a good wage."
Baizabal was interviewed in Spanish by Roque Planas, associate editor of HuffPost Latino Voices.