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Bread–and Workers’ Rights– on the Rise at Long Island City Bakery

Today is the deadline for 31 employees of Tom Cat Bakery. Last month, they were told they had 30 days to prove they could legally work in the U.S. Or they’d be laid off. The Department of Homeland Security audited the Long Island City company. And that revealed some employees had been working in the country without proper documentation. This morning, 19 of Tom Cat’s workers and over 80 supporters, gathered outside Tom Cat to protest the layoffs. Meg Dalton has the story.

DALTON 1: On an average day at 6 a.m., Hector Solis is already busy in the kitchen, whipping up fresh batches of bread. Sourdough. Baguettes. Brioche buns. But today he and 20 of his coworkers are standing outside in the rain. They’ve traded their pans and mixing bowls for posters with slogans like “No bread, No ICE.”

DALTON 2: The mostly Spanish-speaking workers are protesting the company for what they say is unfair treatment.

SOLIS: We are not bad person. We are not criminals. We are hardworkers and we do the best we can.

DALTON: Solis (SO-LIS) has worked at Tom Cat for the last 12 years. And he’s lived in the country for over two decades. He supports his wife and two kids with his salary from the bakery. Then on March 15th, he was called into his supervisor’s office.

SOLIS: They received a letter that I had to prove I can work in United States. Otherwise I have to leave the company.

DALTON: Tom Cat Bakery told 31 of its employees that they had been flagged by the Department of Homeland Security. Because they didn’t have proper documentation proving they were authorized to work in the U.S. So they would have to show papers, like an I-9 form…Or get fired. Workers say although the audit began in January, they were only notified last month.

GROSS: Instead of giving workers 3 months to try to respond, to try to organize their affairs, they called workers in one by one, gave them a letter saying you have 10 days to show employment documentation or you’re fired.

DALTON: Daniel Gross is founder of Brandworkers, a nonprofit representing food industry employees. He says the staff at Tom Cat eventually got more than just the 10 days. And some were successful. They were able to produce paperwork and keep their jobs. But 20 or so, like Hector Solis, haven’t been so lucky.

SOLIS: I have no choice, I have to leave the company.

DALTON: Organizers say the company has offered a severance package to those workers. But they turned it down and are continuing to negotiate with the bakery.

David Martin teaches law at the University of Virginia. He also served as the deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for 2 years under President Obama. The bakery didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Martin says the audit has put it in a difficult place.

MARTIN: You either need to fire them or you will be subject to more strict penalties under the laws that govern hiring.

DALTON: This isn’t the first time an I-9 audit has happened in New York City. In 2007, the online grocer Fresh Direct lost at least 40 of its warehouse workers after a probe from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Martin says Tom Cat’s audit is different than others… in a big way.  

MARTIN: Typically what happens when this information comes through and an employer asks the employees for more documentation, they just quietly slip away.  

DALTON: Martin says I-9 audits are common in the U.S. But a public response to them isn’t.

DALTON: Back outside Tom Cat Bakery, it’s now 8 a.m. The protest is coming to a close. At this point, the sun has risen. But with a group of Tom Cat’s employees still on strike, not much as bread as usual. Meg Dalton, Columbia Radio News.


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