Fired for Empathy

Josh Kelety

In early September Seattle Central Student Carlos Hernandez was fired from his job at Subway for giving away a 66-cent cookie to a child. But that wasn’t the real reason. In actuality Hernandez had been deeply concerned about the treatment of his co-workers by his management and was empowering his fellow sandwich artisans to go on strike, prompting a crackdown of threats and intimidation from his employers.

Carlos by Broadway Subway branch

Carlos by Broadway Subway branch (photo by Josh Kelety)

Hernandez and a few of his co-workers had been involved with the fast food workers and the Strike Poverty Raise Seattle movement after he began to learn about the sinister inner workings of the Subway company. He heard stories from co-workers of overworked staff, unpaid overtime, denied lunch breaks, and a lack of sympathy for sick employees. One of his co-workers, a fellow immigrant, had worked at Subway for six years, clocking in 80-100 hours per week. When Hernandez asked him whether he got overtime, he responded by saying he hadn’t received any during all of those years.

Washington State law requires that any employee working over 40 hours per week must be paid overtime wages, which are one and a half times their regular wage. And with the costs of living skyrocketing every penny counts. An MIT study on poverty in King County put the livable wage for an adult and one child at $20.53 per hour, more than twice what minimum wage Seattle service workers currently make. That means that Hernandez and others like him are normally making less than half of what is required to get by in Seattle, while also working hours well beyond the amount defined as overtime.

Hernandez had been working for Subway for six months prior to his dismissal. He described his initial relationship with his co-workers and management as great. He valued his job and enjoyed his work. Everyone around him could see that.

“Within the first two months they loved me,” said Hernandez. “I am a kind person. I take my job seriously. Anyone who knows me knows that,” he said. His bosses wanted to make him an on-site manager.

Caroline Duracher, Hernandez’s coworker, said Hernandez works hard.

“He’s honestly one of the best workers I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen him not doing his job well,” Duracher said.

Born in Honduras, Hernandez first attempted to enter the United States in search of work at 15 years old by crossing the Rio Grande River into Texas. He said U.S. immigration picked him up, and, due to bureaucratic issues, Hernandez was locked up for eight months in a detention facility. It wasn’t until he his second attempt to cross the border that he was placed into an illegal immigrant youth program that sent him to Seattle, where he went on to enroll in a G.E.D. program at Seattle Central. He is currently taking classes and working at the SCCC Info Center.

When Hernandez began prodding Hazen (his district manager) about these issues, his inquiries were either dismissed or ignored completely. He then turned to local fast food worker activists to address the issues through other avenues. He began going to organizational meetings, and, on May 30th, during nation-wide Strike Poverty protest, he inspired eleven of his co-workers to go on strike and join other restaurant workers in demanding fairer wages and respect.


Supporters picketing Broadway Subway (photo by Josh Kelety)

Under the federal National Labor Relations Act workers are allowed to go on strike without reprimand from their employers. However, Washington State has no law protecting workers in that aspect.

The response from his management was anything but accommodating. Hazen allegedly went to work isolating those who had been involved in the strike between the eight different Subways that he managed, making sure that immigrant protesters were placed with only native English speakers and vice versa. Then came the personal intimidation of the staff. Not only were employees telephoned and threatened of being fired if their involvement in the protests continued, but Hazen went so far as to tell workers to ask for forgiveness. He even told one immigrant worker that he would call immigration on him and have him deported if he were to be involved in the protests again.

“He would take workers aside in his car driving from store to store and threaten them,” Duracher said. “Some of the workers don’t have their citizenship and he uses that against them.”

Hazen was unable to contacted for this article, despite numerous attempts to reach him.

The intimidation tactics only empowered Hernandez further, and he went on strike again during the second fast food workers march on August 29th.  He was fired a few days after under the pretense of giving a child a cookie — something that he had been doing routinely during his time at Subway with his supervisor’s knowledge.

Hazen had a conversation with Hernandez prior to the second march to try and dissuade him from encouraging further dissent by offering him a manager position.

“[Hazen] was like, ‘I am giving you an opportunity. I am trying to help you be successful,’” said Hernandez. “I said, ‘you need to talk to your employees about these things. If you want to help me help the other people.’”

Hernandez said Hazen replied by saying that Hernandez is a “nice guy but you have that kind of sickness. You are a sick man.”

Essentially Hernandez was fired for actually giving a shit, for seeing instances of injustice and feeling compelled to do something about it. Hazen saw this empathy and compassion as a disease.

“If they could pay less, they would pay less. They just care about the money,” Hernandez added.

Thankfully there were those who recognized this and workers rights advocacy groups have rushed in to support him. Hernandez, a few of his co-workers, and other activists have been routinely picketing all 8 of the subways that Hazen manages around Seattle. Good Jobs Seattle is one of the primary movements rallying with Hernandez, in addition to Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative candidate for city council and long time advocate of a 15-dollar an hour minimum wage. While councils members Richard Conlin and Nick Licata have come out publicly in support of Hernandez, Sawant  has been the only politician to actually picket Seattle Subways.


Broadway Subway (photo by Josh Kelety)

Good Jobs Seattle is working with Hernandez to file Federal Charges against the Subway Company in wake of Hazen’s violation of Federal Law.

Follow Josh Kelety on Twitter @Josh_Kelety

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