Carriers sue Sacramento Bee over employment status

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2014 - 12:00 am

A Sacramento Superior Court trial is underway to determine if The Sacramento Bee has correctly classified an estimated 5,000 of its newspaper carriers as independent contractors.

Plaintiffs in the class-action case say the carriers who delivered the papers between 2005 and 2009 were actually employees of The Bee. If Judge Gerrit W. Wood finds in favor of the six named plaintiffs, the trial would then move into its next phase to determine if the company is liable for reimbursing the carriers for mileage expenses.

The plaintiffs filed the suit in 2009, charging that The Bee and its parent McClatchy Co. violated state labor laws by not consistently paying the carriers minimum wage or providing them with enough time for meals or rest breaks. In 2011, another Sacramento judge, Raymond M. Cadei, did not certify those claims for class-action status and the plaintiffs’ attorneys dropped those charges from the lawsuit.

The trial entered its seventh week this week. Michael J. Sachs, the Santa Ana-based lead attorney for the plaintiffs, concluded his case two weeks ago. He said in an interview he feels the trial is “going great” for his side.

“We believe that we’ve shown a mountain of evidence that the carriers were controlled by The Sacramento Bee, which is the primary factor in determining whether or not they are employees,” Sachs said. “The carriers were trained. They were supervised, and they were also recruited by The Bee. All signs are indicia of employment status.”

Attorneys for the newspaper company began to present evidence last week.

“The Sacramento Bee is adamant that it classified its carriers appropriately in accordance with state law and relevant regulations in the industry and consistent with industry practice,” defense attorney John S. Poulos of Sacramento said in an interview. “I think the lawsuit is not well founded in any respect.”

The six named plaintiffs in the case are Lorianne Sawin, Monica Gallardo, Robert Langford, Kimberly Holliman, Billy Trahin and Merle Renslow. Neither they nor any of the other 5,000 members of the class were called to testify.

“We chose to present our evidence from the top down,” Sachs said, “in other words, showing the policies and procedures of The Bee from the top down that applied to all of the carriers instead of telling what one individual carrier’s story was.”

A trial brief filed by the plaintiffs said the paper was able to fire the carriers “at will.” It also noted The Bee provided carriers with route lists and delivery deadlines, showing an employment relationship. The Bee monitored and supervised the carriers, handled customer complaints, set subscription prices and required carriers to buy insurance through the paper’s broker, the brief said.

In their brief, attorneys for The Bee said the carriers each signed an “independent contractor agreement” that the paper says established the separate relationship. According to the brief, the carriers could set their own hours and employ subcontractors. It said the paper could only terminate a carrier’s contract “for material breach or upon thirty days’ notice,” not “at will.” The state Employment Development Department, meanwhile, has “repeatedly rejected” unemployment claims by newspaper carriers, “finding them to be independent contractors,” The Bee’s brief said.

After The Bee concludes its defense, Judge Wood will take the case under submission.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

Read more articles by Andy Furillo

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