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The Light Load: With ‘wake-up calls’ like this, who needs Ambien?

Court withholds warehouse’s milk, cookies over massive underpayment of wages

A customs warehouse in San Diego paid Mexican nationals mere peanuts — as little as $3.38 an hour and no overtime. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Maybe a reader smarter than I (one whose attempts at math aren’t a path-smoother to mental health counseling) can point out anything in the following debacle that makes it less dumb-as-a-sack-of-ostriches than it appears.

To wit:

A customs warehouse in San Diego employed 16 Mexican nationals as merchandise checkers. It paid them as little as $3.38 an hour and no overtime even when they worked up to 51 hours per week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ordered the warehouse and its Tijuana, Mexico, partner to remunerate said workers to the tune of $230,000 in back wages.


But then things went full Edvard Munch.

The court approved a microscopic $5,000 civil penalty against the warehouse for “reckless disregard” of certain labor requirements.

Something’s reckless, all right, but the irony is lost on the legal system.

Circling back to our original thesis that math is hard, I outsourced the number crunching on this. My overworked percentage calculator’s conclusion: $5,000 is only about 2% of $230,000.

Soooo, the warehouse got … what exactly? “Slapped” is way too strong a verb for a 2% penalty on $230,000 in wages that should have been paid IN THE FIRST DANG PLACE.

Tsk-tsked maybe? Pooh-poohed? Sent to bed before the Tonys crowned the winner for Best Costume Design in a Musical No One Past Hackensack Ever Heard Of?

Take your pick, but even those seem like generously stern descriptions of the actual legal response in light of the petty-cash-drawer pickins the warehouse company has to cough up like so many disagreeable cabbage rolls.

I asked the feds if 5,000 smackers was the enchilada, the whole enchilada and nothing but the enchilada of the penalty levied. Of course, that’s besides the $230,000 that the company ALREADY OWED ITS WORKERS, payment of which is no more a punishment than returning a misappropriated Talky Tina doll from little Gabby’s to little Gertrude’s toy chest.

A helpful gentleman in DOL PR who is responsible for none of this farce shared thus: The company “must also train its supervisors and employees on the Fair Labor Standards Act, provide employees with a notice about how to calculate pay under the FLSA, and participate in outreach to help change the industry.”


If that doesn’t fix their little red forklift, nothing will.

I mean, am I wrong (don’t answer that) or is this sanction, which is not even in the same ZIP code as harsh, remarkably timid? Benign? Milquetoast? Other applicable synonym courtesy of the thesaurus?

Even a mathematical dolt such as yours truly can see that such a paltry/lenient/bush-league penalty is a bald-faced/unambiguous/patent invitation to other companies to roll the dice on not paying a legal wage. “Guys, we can risk shelling out some chump change, doing a little training and sitting in timeout for the chance to save a couple hundred thou. You in?”

Not to worry, though. DOL is confident it’s taught ’em a lesson good and hard.

Quoth an administrator from the Wage and Hour Division:

— “This case is a wake-up call to the customs warehouse industry.” (True. Just not in the way DOL believes.)

— “Paying a workforce as little as $3 an hour will not be tolerated.” (Glad the lucky workers in this case got at least $3.38 so they didn’t cross DOL’s Threshold Into the Intolerable.)

— “The U.S. Department of Labor will use every legal vehicle in our authority to ensure people working on U.S. soil are paid fairly and that employers who underpay workers do not gain an unfair competitive advantage over employers who comply with the law.” (But it won’t sting much if those vehicular legal eagles catch the miscreants, so heck, carpe pecuniam!)

The Light Load is an occasional, wry look at the world of transportation and logistics through the eyes of an industry greenhorn.

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Steve Barrett

A copy editor for FreightWaves since 2019, Steve Barrett has worked as an editor and/or reporter for The Associated Press as well as newspapers in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Nebraska. He also served as a senior managing editor for a medical marketing company, collaborating with some of the nation's most respected health care organizations and specialists in major markets in New York and Pennsylvania. He earned a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of Georgia and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish from the University of South Dakota.