NEW YORK — The apparel union UNITE charged Tuesday that cheap-chic retailer H&M kicked off a round of layoffs last week at its Secaucus, N.J., distribution center targeting workers who were seeking to organize a local at the facility.

This story first appeared in the November 12, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

UNITE claimed that at least eight of the workers fired were told to leave because of medical restrictions that the workers claimed were the result of on-the-job injuries.

In a statement released late Tuesday, H&M said that 26 employees at the facility had come to management and asked to be reassigned for medical reasons. The company said those employees had been assigned to a retagging project that has since been completed, and that 12 of them have since been reassigned.

The company said the 14 staffers who were not been reassigned will be “kept active” for six months, which means that they will not lose seniority if a job for which they are suited opens up within that time period.

One of the workers, Ana Maria Araujo, said in a phone interview that she had been working at the facility for about 15 months — first through a temp agency, then as a staffer — when she sustained an injury on Sept. 6, 2002.

Speaking through an interpreter, she recalled that she had been filling out paperwork in the facility when someone bumped into a dolly, tipping it over and knocking a stack of boxes on her that crushed her to the floor and left her unconscious for a few minutes.

After being driven to the hospital by her manager, she said, a doctor diagnosed her with a muscle injury to her back and told her not to lift more than 10 pounds. Araujo, now 47, said she missed 15 days of work, but then returned to the job, where she continued performing her assigned duties in the “Golden Service” department until Thursday. That day, she said, a manager told her she was being laid off because she could not work in the picking department, where employees were required to lift boxes of as much as 65 pounds.

Araujo, who lives in Jersey City, claimed she had not done much work in that department prior to or since her injury and said she believed she had been fired because in July she started supporting a campaign to unionize the facility.

Steve Weingarten, director of the industrial department at UNITE, said Tuesday that the company had apparently kicked off a round of layoffs last week that resulted in at least nine and perhaps as many as 30 firings. The facility employs about 200 workers, according to the union.

Weingarten said, “There’s a bunch of things we’ve started investigating here. One is the connection between the company’s crackdown on workers who have been hurt and opposition to the union.”

He also said the union was looking into whether the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act or other laws aimed at protecting injured and disabled workers.

In its statement, H&M said, “It is 100 percent the choice of our wonderful workforce to draw their own conclusion and make their own decision as to whether union representation will benefit them.”

The company also said it has “embarked on an internal campaign to educate all of our staff on any and all issues surrounding unionization.”

UNITE demonstrators on Tuesday picketed outside the Secaucus facility, where they demanded the retailer rehire the terminated injured workers, provide accommodations for injured workers — such as positions in departments where their injuries would not interfere with their abilities to work — and to “permit an emergency workplace evaluation by an ergonomics specialist” to determine if it can be made safer.

Weingarten offered few details as to UNITE’s plans, but on Tuesday afternoon union representatives outside a Midtown H&M location were handing out flyers telling passersby they were trying to organize workers at that company, and offering those who filled out a survey about H&M a chance to win a $100 gift certificate to Mexx or Barneys New York, two New York retailers with UNITE representation.

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