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Elmhurst grocery baggers fight C-Town for back pay

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After years of not receiving pay for their work as grocery baggers, three Elmhurst workers are fighting for back pay from the C-Town supermarket that employed them for tips, state officials said.

The baggers, who the officials did not name, worked at the 94-53 Corona Ave. store for at least six years, officials said, taking in only the gratuities from customers. They are owed $339,000 in back wages, the state Labor Department said.

The investigation began when one of the workers complained to the state, Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith said.

"If you tip them, you're assuming they're getting minimum wage," Smith said. "It's shocking to discover the only income these baggers had were tips."

She said a Fine Fair Supermarket in Coney Island, also under investigation, charged the baggers $25 a week from their tips for the opportunity to work there.

The Brooklyn store has settled with its baggers, but C-Town has not, claiming the baggers were independent contractors and not employees, Smith said.

"They preyed on the immigrant work force," said state Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) at a news conference in front of the store, noting he was concerned other businesses might be taking advantage of undocumented workers in the community. "Things go on here because people think they can fly under the radar."

Supermarket employees with Local 338 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union also came out to Elmhurst to show support for the baggers.

"What is normal for a supermarket worker? Decent wages, benefits, pensions, things to achieve a middle-class standard of living," said Kevin Lynch, Local 338 director of organizing.

According to state Labor statistics, laborers who move freight, stock and material by hand earn an entry level wage of $17,180 a year. The median wage is $22,670.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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