An aerial view of warehouses in Riverside County. ( / Courtesy photo)

By Lilly Fowler, FairWarning
Posted: 03/05/2012 12:01:00 AM PST

As a warehouse worker in the Inland Empire, the nation’s biggest distribution hub for consumer goods, Jorge Soto handles shipments for retail giant Walmart every day.

But Soto, who works for a subcontractor, claims that along with routine jobs such as unloading trucks, he also has been ordered to perform an illegal task: falsifying employees’ time sheets to cheat them out of getting the minimum wage.

The Mexican-born Soto, 47, said in a sworn court statement that his supervisors forced him, when he was the lead member of his crew, to severely understate workers’ hours. He said the purpose was to cover up the widespread practice of paying well below the legal minimum, which is $8 an hour in California.

As Soto explained in an interview, “they wanted to wash their hands of it through me,” adding that workers sometimes received as little as $3 or $4 an hour.

A suit filed in federal court in Los Angeles on behalf of Soto and dozens of other warehouse workers charges three companies that handle Walmart goods with fraudulent pay practices. The case, along with recent investigations by state labor officials that have led to proposed fines of close to $1.4 million, depict what critics say is the underside of the vast warehouse business in the region.

An economic juggernaut that employs about 100,000 people, the Inland Empire warehouses are a staging point for Apple computers, Gerber baby clothes, Polo apparel and other brand-name imports.

They handle goods from Asia that come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to be distributed around the U.S.

According to court documents and interviews with workers:

Crew leaders such as Soto were under orders at some warehouses to force workers to sign blank time sheets, a tactic that made it easier to cheat employees out of their rightful pay.

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