By Lincoln Anderson
The owner of Yellow Rat Bastard really was a bastard for the way he treated his employees, according to a settlement brokered last month by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The outcome of two lawsuits filed by the Attorney Generals Office, the settlement will result in $1.4 million in unpaid wages and overtime being paid to more than 1,000 current and former employees of the Soho retail chain.
Yellow Rat Bastard, at 478 Broadway, is the flagship of a string of seven hip-hop-and alternative-style clothing and shoe stores owned by Henry Ishay along Broadway in Soho, Noho and Tribeca; the others include Dirty Jane/Sloppy Joe, at 483 Broadway; Boys and Chicks, at 392 Broadway; Antique Orange, at 364 Broadway; Fat Jeans, at 648 Broadway; Temple, at 736 Broadway; and Rubber Sole Shoes, at 740 Broadway.
Ishay also has Yellow Fat Bastards in the Queens Mall, in Cedarhurst, Queens, and Brooklyn.
The Retail Action Project, or RAP, a division of Good Old Lower East Side, or GOLES, first discovered the workers plight in 2006, then began organizing them. The investigation began under former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and continued under Cuomo. Cuomo froze personal and corporate assets controlled by Ishay at the onset of the litigation.
According to RAP and former Ishay workers, the employees at Yellow Rat Bastard, as well as Ishays six other nearby Broadway stores, were often paid as little as $5.25 per hour, and sometimes just $4.75, well below the 2006 minimum wage of $6.75; plus, the workers received no overtime pay, in violation of labor laws.
Employees typically worked 60 to 70 hours per week. In some cases, they said, workers who spoke up about the violations or tried to organize co-workers were fired. The employees were mostly immigrants or children of immigrants.
Ishay was arrested in October 2006 and charged with failure to maintain minimum payroll records. As a result of the settlement, the criminal charges were dropped.
The settlement includes back wages owed the workers for the period covering 2000 to 2006, as well as some money for penalties and damages.
Some of these individuals will be getting a lot of money back maybe up to $20,000, noted Carrie Gleason, a RAP organizer.
The agreement requires Ishay to mortgage family-owned property to guarantee that all the employees who were underpaid are fully compensated. In addition, the A.G.s Office, with the help of GOLES and RAP, will maintain oversight over Ishays stores for five years to ensure the settlements conditions are enforced. The agreement bars any retaliation against workers who cooperated with the investigation.
On Tuesday, former workers from Ishays stores, members of GOLES and RAP, advocates for store workers and union organizers celebrated their victory with a rally and march.
Chanting, The workers community united, will never be defeated! and Whats outrageous? Sweatshop wages! they gathered in the freezing cold in front of Yellow Rat Bastard.
It was hoped Cuomo would be able to attend or hold a separate press conference, but he was unable to do either.
In a statement, Cuomo said, Any retail employers taking advantage of hardworking New Yorkers are on notice: Refusing wages and paying below the minimum wage will not be tolerated in New York. Denying dignity, respect and fairness in the workplace is both unethical and unlawful. The person responsible for these violations was caught and is now paying the price.
Standing at the mic, Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, said, The Lower East Side will not stand for illegal wages, harassment and discrimination and poor working conditions in our backyard. We congratulate Y.R.B. workers on the settlement and hope it sends strong messages to retailers throughout the city. As development continues to boom in our neighborhood, GOLES will continue to organize our community to fight for justice and dignity on the job. Workers will not stand for being mistreated anymore.
Joining RAP in organizing the workers was the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Its cold out here, said Jeff Eichler, director of retail organizing for R.W.D.S.U. But its a great day to celebrate $1.4 million is a hell of a lot of money. The R.W.D.S.U. will not stand for this type of exploitation in any part of the city, he declared. Eichler said the union will fight to establish a fair floor for wages, and then push that floor upward so that all retail workers in our neighborhoods can live.
Two brothers originally from Trinidad who used to work for Ishay told of their mistreatment.
Sherman Dyer, 27, who was a security guard at Yellow Fat Bastard, said when he started he was paid just $5.25 per hour, which was later raised to $6. Dyer said the workers did complain about conditions, but it wasnt taken seriously. He regularly worked 66 hours per week, usually 11 or sometimes 12 hours per day.
Right after the lawsuit papers were served against Yellow Rat Bastard, the workers wages were increased and their hours cut so they were no longer working overtime, he said.
Dyer said he expects to get a few thousand dollars from the settlement.
His brother Edwin Dyer, 25, who was the assistant manager at Boys and Chicks, said he typically worked 60 to 70 hours per week with no overtime pay.
I didnt think there was anything I could do about it until I met the people from RAP, he said.
He was fired after speaking out, because I expressed my rights and I tried to get more workers involved, he said. Edwin gave several affidavits to the A.G.s Office. He has filed an individual retaliation lawsuit against Ishay.
Its very exciting, he said of the settlement. It shows people they can stand up for their rights and dont have to take this abuse anymore.
After the speeches, the rally marched up Broadway from Broome St. to E. Seventh St., where the northernmost of Ishays Broadway stores is located, as they chanted, 1.4 million dollars! and Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Back wages have got to go!
Gleason said RAP next will likely target stores along 14th and Delancey Sts. to make sure they are treating their employees fairly.
We look to sign an agreement with these business owners, she said.
Speaking for Ishay, who was at a retail clothing trade show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Scott Fenstermaker, his attorney, found only positives in the settlement.
Its a terrific settlement for us, because they were asking for more money, he said. I think they were asking for $2 million. We contend that we treated the workers fairly and they contend that we didnt treat them fairly, and they resolved the matter with the settlement.
Fenstermaker added that there was no admission of liability on Ishays part and that his client does not admit to any retaliatory firing of workers. However, he added, If people felt they were wronged, we want to make it right.