Berkley, CA By Gordon Gibb: Roberto "Bobby" Rodriquez could be forgiven for fading quietly into the sunset of retirement. He's earned it, after working 33 years in the California steel industry. But even though he retired from Pacific Steel in 2010, his work is unfinished—now that he is speaking out in support of California labor lawon behalf of his current and former comrades.
To that end, Rodriquez is the lead plaintiff in a $31 million class-action lawsuit against Pacific Steel, the foundry for which is located in Berkley. The basis for the California labor lawsuit is the alleged failure to provide timely meal and rest breaks on the part of the defendant. At a press conference, Rodriquez noted that the basis for his lawsuit lay in a long-standing rule allegedly implemented by the company, that mandated an employee was not allowed to take a meal break until he or she had worked for a full six hours. The California Labor Code, however, clearly states that employees are to be afforded a 30-minute meal break within each five-hour work period, according to a story published December 23 in the Contra Costa Times. An attorney representing Rodriquez in the class-action lawsuit told those gathered at a news conference just before Christmas that some workers at Pacific Steel have been regularly made to remain on the clock for 6.5 hours or longer, without a meal break. The lead plaintiff, speaking at his California and labor law press conference, revealed back when he was working, he would regularly report to his supervisors that he was hungry prior to his meal break. Their response? "'…If you don't like it, there's the door,'" Rodriquez recalled. He could accept the policy and the circumstances, or he could leave. Rodriquez, 63, noted in his remarks that a recent spate of layoffs at the foundry served as a catalyst for his California labor employment law initiative. A federal immigration audit launched in February of last year concluded that dozens of workers at Pacific Steel's Berkley foundry could be suspected of being in the country illegally. In response, Pacific Steel began a spate of layoffs commencing in October. It is reported that further layoffs will take place through January. That said, it was the failure to provide timely meal breaks that fuels Rodriquez' lawsuit. The plaintiff agrees with his lawyer that the practice contravenes California state labor laws. "I wanted to do this for years—since they made this rule about having to take lunch after six hours of work," Rodriguez said at his press conference. A number of his former colleagues, those who were able to attend the press conference (while on a meal break), approached the plaintiff afterwards to extend their thanks for taking up their cause. The California labor law complaint was filed in Alameda County Superior Court and represents about 1,000 current and former works at the three-plant compound at Pacific Steel in Berkley. The lawsuit seeks an hour of pay for each day worked without a timely meal break over the past four years. It is estimated that each worker would be entitled to about $20,000 should the lawsuit prove successful.