The upscale Renee Strauss for the Bride salon in Beverly Hills doesn’t conform to anyone’s definition of a sweatshop.
Its Web site boasts an exclusive clientele of Hollywood luminaries, including Raquel Welch, Victoria Principal and Roseanne. Its wedding and bridesmaid gowns have appeared on shows such as “ER,” “Beverly Hills 90210" and “Melrose Place.”
But on Wednesday, a new organization dedicated to publicizing labor law violations in the garment industry staged a protest at the Wilshire Boulevard shop on behalf of one worker who says she is owed more than $4,000 in back wages for working at the shop, running errands, cleaning the store and the owner’s home and doing other tasks.
Ana Celia Romualdo said she often toiled 12- or 13-hour days without overtime pay for almost three years, many times without breaks.
“It is unjust what happened to me there,” said Romualdo, a 48-year-old native of El Salvador, who spoke at the protest and news conference organized by Garment Worker Center, a nonprofit group in downtown Los Angeles that opened in January with funding from area foundations. Romualdo said she quit her job in January.
Renee Strauss, the president of the concern that bears her name, denied any wrongdoing and characterized Romualdo as a disgruntled and erratic ex-employee intent on making trouble. But she acknowledged never paying overtime to Romualdo and said the firm was checking its books to see whether any back pay is owed.
“I don’t want to hold anyone’s wages,” Strauss said. “We wanted to get to the bottom of this.”
The protest was part of a campaign by the Garment Worker Center to embarrass businesses it says are wage cheaters in Los Angeles’ garment industry, the nation’s largest. Only one in three area garment shops was in compliance with federal and state wage laws last year, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey.
“The public and Strauss’ clients need to know that exploitation still exists in the garment industry, even in Beverly Hills,” said Joann Lo, an organizer.
The activists, who are planning to file a wage complaint on Romualdo’s behalf with state labor law enforcement officials, said the bridal shop case is an example of how sweatshop-like practices exist beyond sewing lofts and storefronts.
“The issue here is not that Renee Strauss cannot afford overtime pay,” said Victor Narro of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “It is that she doesn’t want to pay it.”
State law requires that most employees receive time-and-a-half pay for work exceeding eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
Strauss said none of her 17 to 22 employees works overtime because the firm can’t afford to pay it. Romualdo, according to Strauss, “begged” for extra hours, but knew she would only earn her straight pay of about $6.50 an hour, slightly above the legal minimum of $6.25.