PROVIDENCE, R.I. — David Correia and Alda Bonin were among a crowd of workers who jammed a tiny courtroom here last week, pressing a six-month struggle for pay and benefits they say are owed them.

Colibri Workers for Rights and Justice, representing 280 workers who were locked out of their jobs at the Colibri jewelry factory here six months ago, were hoping the judge would acknowledge their claim for 60 days pay and benefits due them under federal law.

Instead, the Superior Court judge decided that a court-appointed receiver and a consulting firm should be paid more than $800,000 out of the company’s assets, while the workers have received not a cent.

“They’re paying all the vendors off, meanwhile there’s no money left for us,” said Correia, 52, who was a foot press operator at Colibri for seven years.

He pointed out that, while the company broke the law, the workers are paying the taxes that fund “the lawyers, the court personnel, the increase in unemployment staff.”

In January, Founders Equity, the private investment firm that owns the Colibri Group, shuttered the plant and put the company in receivership. Colibri management sent the workers an e-mail notification just the night before the closing, and many did not find out until they came to work the following morning and found a sign on the locked door. The workers were paid only through Jan. 14, the day before the closing.

Since then, they have been battling to be paid out of the company’s assets. And they have filed a federal lawsuit based on the federal WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act, which requires a company with 100 or more employees to give the workers 60 days notice before closing.

The lawsuit names Colibri, Founders Equity and Phoenix Management as defendants. Phoenix Management is the company chosen by Founders Equity to run the company’s daily operations.

Voicing the workers’ anger at Founders Equity, which took control of Colibri several years ago, Correia said, “The main source of their income was us. Now they walk over us like we’re nothing — they made their money.”

Bonin, a 33-year jewelry model maker and designer who worked for Colibri for a year and a half, said the company had deliberately deceived workers into believing their jobs were secure. She said she and several other workers had been periodically laid off for short stretches, including just before Christmas last year. “They told us we would come back at the beginning of February,” she said. “I asked the supervisor, ‘Should I bring my tools home?’ He said, ‘No Alda, don’t take your belongings. You’re coming back the beginning of February. So here I am thinking I have a job.”

“They deceived us,” she said. “They should have warned us, given us a chance to look for other jobs.”

Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Bonin has managed to land an hourly job at a local hospital, with no benefits, paid much less then she was earning at Colibri.

Correia said he visits the state unemployment department’s Network Rhode Island job center every day, but to no avail. He has been trying to get into a training program, he said, but the only response is “We’ll get in touch with you.”

“We want to see a law passed so this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Correia said.

The federal WARN Act was passed in 1988 to lessen the impact that massive unforeseen unemployment has on local communities, and to give workers time to seek new employment or enter training programs. It was created for times like the present, the Colibri workers say. However, the federal WARN Act lacks enforcement measures.

The Colibri workers are pressing for state legislation that will strengthen the WARN Act locally.

The Rhode Island WARN Act, H5673, officially known as the Rhode Island Worker Protection and Job Loss Notification Act, was introduced by East Providence Rep. Roberto DaSilva as a response to the Colibri plant closing in his district.

The bill would automatically guarantee payment of 60 days wages and benefits to workers as an immediate administrative expense, if a company fails to provide notification of a closing.

Meanwhile, the workers say they will continue their battle for compensation from the company’s assets. Referring to the judge’s decision to hand over more than $800,000 to the receiver and consulting firm, the workers said, “We believe it’s obscene to have such high administrative fees while the workers still have not seen a cent.”

“We are not swayed!” they said. “We will continue to fight until the Colibri workers are compensated and the law is changed to protect workers.”

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.