D’Amico workers protest firing

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“D’Amico will not be bullied into violating Federal law.” Standing in the vestibule of the D’Amico & Sons restaurant near 22nd and Hennepin in Minneapolis, Amy Rotenberg cut the figure of a wronged corporation, wearing a stylish black trench coat and an expression combining shock, outrage, and seriousness. As she spoke, Rotenberg raised her eyebrows and inclined her head forward to emphasize her point.

The spokesperson for the D’Amico restaurant chain was at pains to insist, over the noise from protesters outside, that the 15 workers fired on March 31 were cynically using charges of discriminatory firing to strong-arm the company into giving them their jobs back, Federal laws barring the hiring of undocumented individuals be damned.

Try telling that to Mariano Loja or Alfredo Chuca, two of the 15 employees from metro-area D’Amico locations let go after the company received so-called “no-match letters” from the Social Security Administration (SSA) regarding them and dozens of other workers at the company’s restaurants. Mr. Loja described feeling “kicked to the curb” after many years of loyal service when D’Amico reneged on what they say was an agreement on how to resolve the situation. The two were among the 18 or so protesters outside D’Amico’s in Uptown on Saturday evening.

“We expect respect for what we did for the company, for them to honor their commitment to what is just,” said Mr. Loja, adding that they wanted their old jobs back, and some kind of compensation for their termination. Mr. Loja spoke through Eduardo Cardenas, a volunteer translator with the Workers’ Interfaith Network, or WIN.

WIN has been helping the workers organize their response to the no-match letters since about a month before they were fired.

“No-match letters” are sent by the SSA to a company with 10 or more workers when an audit of the company’s personnel records turns up an employee whose Social Security Number on file with the company does not match a file in the SSA database. D’Amico received dozens of the letters two years ago, with these 15 workers representing the last and most senior workers named.

“You have to ask why they [D’Amico] asked the workers to re-verify” their identities, exclaimed Matt Gladue, a WIN organizer at Saturday’s protest. The decision to fire the 15, he said, was discriminatory because it assumed the workers – all 15 are Latino and immigrants – were undocumented. In addition, the same federal laws D’Amico claims to be obeying explicitly state no-match letters cannot be used as grounds for firing. Given the high rate of error in the SSA databases – estimated at 21% several years ago – they may not even mean a person has used false papers to get a job.

The 15 workers and WIN have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charging D’Amico with discriminatory firing. The EEOC is a federal body that investigates discrimination in the workplace. EEOC procedure gives D’Amico until May 12 to respond to the complaint, after which the case is referred to an inspector who attempts to arbitrate a solution. Failing that, the inspector opens a more lengthy investigation, leading to an official judgment on the complaint.

According to D’Amico spokesperson Rotenberg, D’Amico informed the 15 last September that they needed to “start the process of resolving their identity discrepancies” with the SSA by the end of March. At the beginning of March, WIN advised the workers to send letters to the Social Security office in Baltimore that had issued the no-match letters, telling the SSA, in effect, that their databases were wrong. A D’Amico personnel manager subsequently gave one worker approval for this approach. The company, however, rescinded this approval a week before the deadline after consulting with the SSA about the proper method of re-verifying one’s identity.

Ms. Rotenberg said that the workers were fired because they refused to follow the new method and D’Amico would “face very severe fines and criminal penalties” if it was known to employ undocumented workers.

For now, D’Amico is standing its ground against the workers’ pressure in advance of the mediation process, heavily controlling its media image with hired security guards, spokespeople, lengthy explanatory leaflets, and requests to the media, made with very strained politeness, not to interview customers as they left the Uptown restaurant.

The workers and WIN, for their part, are confident.

“We have faith,” and will “continue the struggle,” said Mr. Loja, as demonstrators behind him chanted: “Workers’ rights are under attack. What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

James Sanna is an intern for the Daily Planet and an aspiring journalist. He gladly accepts feedback and comments at james.sanna@gmail.com.