Nordstrom Employees File for Back Pay : Labor: Employees complain that they are required to put in unpaid overtime to keep customers happy. Now they are seeking $1 million in compensation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Employees at Nordstrom Inc. have filed $1 million in claims for back pay and are complaining that the Seattle-based citadel of customer service forces them to work without wages to keep customers happy.

The posh department store chain also has been cited by the National Labor Relations Board for not bargaining in good faith with Local 1001 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, which represents 2,000 workers at six Washington state Nordstrom stores. No Nordstrom workers in California are represented by the UFCW.

While Nordstrom officials will say only that they dispute the labor board's charges, they vehemently deny that any employee has ever been made to work without pay.

"Our company policy has always been to pay employees for hours worked," said Kellie Tormey, a Nordstrom spokeswoman in Seattle. "Workers have not even presented the claims to us. We have not seen a single one of those claims."

Joe Peterson, president of Local 1001, said Monday in a telephone interview from Bellevue, Wash., that the union so far has collected claims from several hundred workers in Washington and California that catalogue $1 million in back pay owed by the company.

The average amount of back pay owed for so-called off-the-clock efforts of hourly workers is about $5,000 per employee, Peterson said, although claims have run as high as $16,000. A union task force is documenting claims reaching back three years for Washington employees and four years for California workers. The discrepancy is caused by differences in the states' labor laws.

"What's happening is that Nordstrom employees are coming in on their days off, doing stock work, selling," Peterson said. "They deliver merchandise to customers. They are picking up merchandise from other stores, setting up for sales, ticketing merchandise. . . . We've been trying to get Nordstrom to address this problem for five months, and they have been unwilling to do so."

In a letter to Local 1001, one Southern California Nordstrom employee said she has worked nearly 2,000 hours for free in the past three years, labor amounting to $16,527.55 in back pay.

"My estimates on the back pay summary are very conservative numbers," the woman wrote. "I never got lunches or breaks. (I) wrote thank you notes at home, went in early and left late. My manager always wrote in my time so I never got paid overtime."

Said one six-year, Seattle-based veteran of the upscale retailer: "The first month I was in cosmetics, I spent 20 hours at home to complete my books and did not receive one dime. I did approach management and ask what compensation I should receive for that. I was told nothing, that it was part of my job."

Last Friday, the year's biggest buying day, Nordstrom shoppers in Seattle and Bellevue got more than just care from company clerks. As consumers entered the flagship shops, picketing workers handed them leaflets suggesting that "a great retailer like Nordstrom should not chisel its employees."

The back-pay problems came to a head last summer, when union officials were preparing for contract negotiations on behalf of the 2,000 Nordstrom workers on their membership rolls.

"The employees in Seattle said they were tired of it and tired of not being paid for all their work time," Peterson said. "During preparation for negotiations, we started getting employee testimony and affidavits. Once we got those, we discussed it with the company in bargaining. . . . They acted as if it weren't going on. That's when we started sending out the back-pay form."

Nordstrom employees represented by the UFCW have been working without a contract since Aug. 1. At 1:30 p.m. today, company and union negotiators sit down for the first time since mid-August to hammer out contract details.

Negotiations have been rocky and have resulted in citations by the National Labor Relations Board. A trial before an administrative law judge is scheduled for Jan. 30 to determine the validity of charges that the company has withheld information from the union and attempted to overstep the union and bargain directly with employees.

"The union has asked for various pieces of information to find out how much off-the-clock work, if any, has gone on," said Larry McCargar, assistant to the NLRB's Seattle-based regional director. "That information has not been forthcoming."

McCargar said the board will continue to try to settle the case before the January trial date. "But, so far, we haven't had any success in that regard," he said.

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