By Tracie McMillan
City Limits • Sept. 26, 2007
After celebrating the City Council’s recent passage of a bill upping penalties for employers that lock in their workers at night, the legislation’s backers are faced with a new challenge: enforcement.
The lock-ins bill was designed to clamp down on stores, primarily groceries, that lock in janitors overnight in the hopes of discouraging theft. The bill, passed Sept. 14 and awaiting the mayor’s signature, will dramatically increase fines for violations, from $500 to $5,000 for the first offense, and $20,000 for each additional offense.
But the bill’s success will likely hinge on another provision: its requirement that the Fire Department conduct 50 inspections a year.
The problem first came to light last summer, when the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC), a Brooklyn community organization, launched a campaign against the practice. But since then, advocates say, the Fire Department has failed to conduct regular, nighttime inspections at supermarkets suspected of committing the offense.
“After all this public attention, we didn’t see any systemic change,” said Artemio Guerra, an organizer at FAC, which pushed for the law. “We continue to hear from workers that they are being locked in those stores, both prior to and after the inspections.”
Last July, FAC provided the FDNY with a list of 36 supermarkets suspected of the offense; fire officials dispatched inspectors and came up with nothing. But when the Occupational Health and Safety Administration inspected one of those sites in March, the store had nearly a dozen safety violations–including locked doors that could not be opened from inside the store, a fire hazard–tallying more than $6,000 in fines.
Part of the problem, said Guerra, is that most stores aren’t cleaned on a nightly basis, making inspections a luck-of-the-draw enterprise. Other advocates have said that workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, may be reluctant to respond when the Fire Department comes knocking.
FDNY officials said the department has conducted inspections of all 36 supermarkets named by FAC as offenders. A Jan. 4 internal memo between department officials states that all 36 were visited at night. But the department could not produce any documents regarding those inspections or their outcomes.
FDNY spokesperson David Billig said the agency is doing everything it can to combat lock-ins. After conducting a round of inspections last summer and fall, FDNY found only minor violations; the department has no record of violations at any of the 36 stores since then.
“The practice of locking employees in buildings overnight is dangerous and of serious concern to the fire department,” Billig said. “If someone is aware of a location where this practice is taking place, certainly they should contact the fire department and we will have someone inspect.”