State labor commissioner finds Berkeley contractor guilty of worker retaliation

Ariel D. Hayat/Staff

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Update: This article has been updated to reflect new information from LAZ Parking.

A parking company that contracts with the city took illegal action against one of its employees when it fired him in 2012, according to a decision made this month by the California labor commissioner.

LAZ Parking, which runs three parking garages in Berkeley, was found to have fired Julio Castro for making verbal complaints about his working conditions, which according to California law is not a legal justification for terminating an employee. The company, consequently, was ordered to pay Castro the wages he lost after being fired, which amount to around $1,517.94. The ruling contradicts the conclusion made previously by city staff after their own investigation, which found that LAZ dismissed Castro for permissible reasons.

“Now that (the state has) ruled in my favor in the retaliation issue, what my question is … who in the city is responsible for making sure that an employee like myself is not retaliated against?” Castro said.

Since 2012, Castro has sought help at both the city and state level to resolve alleged labor violations. Last year, the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement awarded Castro more than $3,000 for unpaid wages and denied rest breaks during his employment at LAZ. Castro also filed a complaint with the city, alleging that LAZ violated Berkeley’s living-wage ordinance. The city, however, concluded that Castro was not owed any wages, based on a different interpretation of the ordinance’s health benefit requirement from that of the state’s ruling.

Castro said that while pleased with the recent ruling, he remains “disappointed and baffled” that the city sided with him in neither the wage nor retaliation issues. His lawyer, Gina Gemello from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, suggested that the city’s examination of Castro’s termination may not have been as extensive as Castro’s two-day hearing.

“I think that the resources and expertise of the labor commissioner went very, very deep in examining this,” Gemello said.

According to LAZ spokesperson Mary Coursey, the company strongly disagrees with the labor commisioner’s decision and has filed an appeal.

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said city staff will continue monitoring Castro’s case. According to a memo by the city manager, staff found that Castro, along with other employees, was terminated because the parking garages he worked in became automated. LAZ’s separation notice, though, notes that prior to his dismissal, Castro was “voicing his displeasure” about his working conditions.

Winning Castro’s case, even at the state level, was an intricate process. According to Gemello, Castro’s hearing was facilitated by a pilot program of the labor commissioner to hold more retaliation hearings. Castro himself invested hours in the case.

“He’s a great example of the tenacity that you need to pursue your own rights,” Gemello said. “He was really strong in his conviction that he had been wronged, and so he contacted us sort of having already begun the process.”

For some workers, though, the complexity of this process is prohibitive. Gemello suggested that systemic change needs to happen so the procedures are streamlined.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin agreed that Berkeley needs to change its process. He has proposed changes to the city’s living-wage law that would establish a better procedure for addressing possible violations. Arreguin also noted that if the city strengthened its bidding criteria for contractors, companies apt to make labor violations might not be hired in the first place.

“I think the city has to investigate this issue further in order to not only protect the rights of Mr. Castro but also other employees,” Arreguin said.


Melissa Wen is the lead city news reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center as the Legal Aid Society Employment Center