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Fast Food Worker Challenges Firing, but Faces Uphill Battle

Ashley Gross

 (Update 9/25/13: Adds comment from Subway franchise owner Hasan Zeer.)

A worker fired from a Subway sandwich shop in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has filed charges saying it was illegal retaliation for going on strike. But experts say fighting that kind of legal battle can take years.

Carlos Hernandez is in his early 20s, originally from Honduras. He goes to Seattle Central Community College and until recently worked two jobs.

Earlier this month, he lost one of them. His boss at Subway fired him for giving away a cookie to a child – something he says he had done in the past with no repercussions.

"Normally I pay for it, but that day it was busy and they just found it to be the perfect excuse to fire me," Hernandez said.

Hernandez says he thinks the real reason is that he’s been trying to organize his coworkers to take part in strikes. He says they don’t get paid overtime when they should and rarely get raises after working there for years.

Now, a group affiliated with the Service Employees International Union has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board on his behalf. Dmitri Iglitzin is an attorney for Working Washington, the group that filed the unfair labor practice charges.

"The Labor Board will investigate these charges, and we hope and trust that when it finishes its investigation, it will find merit to the charges and then the federal government will file a complaint, a legal action, against Subway demanding that they reinstate Carlos to work and make him whole for all wages and benefits that he has lost," Iglitzin said. 

Uphill Battle

But experts say that’s an uphill battle. David Cook is a labor lawyer based in Cincinnati. He says businesses usually drag out those cases for years through appeals.

"Employers have learned how to use the flaws inside the system much to their advantage," Cook said. 

Cook says even if a court rules in favor of the worker, he or she only gets back pay from the company – not compensatory or punitive damages. And that’s back pay minus any other earnings if the worker takes a different job.

A spokesman for the corporate office of Subway declined to comment.

Hasan Zeer, the franchise owner of the Subway where Hernandez worked, said in a statement that he think he's being singled out for media events connected to the race for Seattle mayor. Working Washington and other groups have organized pickets and protests outside of Subway stores in Seattle and are urging people to eat elsewhere. Zeer also says he did not retaliate against Hernandez.

"I want to be clear that I do not believe I or my manager have ever violated the rights (of) this employee in question," Zeer said in an emailed statement. "All of the other employees who went on strike are still working for me."

For his part, Hernandez says he hopes he’ll get his job back – mostly because he wants to keep urging his coworkers to agitate for better conditions. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.