The recent termination of dining hall worker and former Workers for Justice (WFJ) leader Maria Garcia on Jan. 20 has put further strains on the relationship between administration and pro-union workers. According to Francisco Garcia, Garcia’s brother and a Pomona dining employee, Maria was informed Jan. 14 that her employment would expire after she reached the maximum 12-month leave of absence provided to her by the college if she didn’t return to work by Jan. 20. Neither Garcia nor the college could comment because of legal considerations.
According to Francisco and another worker close to Garcia, Maria has had three surgeries since she tore her ACL at a college catering event in 2003. Last year, Garcia went on maternity leave in December and gave birth to her third child in March. The knee injury, which had never fully recovered, was worsened by the pregnancy, causing her doctors to deem her disabled and unable to return to work.
“She was told that those three months of the pregnancy don’t count [toward her time away from work],” said the worker. “It counts after, but here they told her no.”
Prior to her termination from the college, Garcia, known by workers and students as “Yo-Yo,” was a leader of the WFJ movement. In her absence, dining hall cook Rolando Araiza stepped up to lead WFJ and now represents the pro-union groups at negotiating meetings and public events.
Francisco said workers were told that Maria’s involvement in WFJ, the pro-union workers’ group, was not a factor in her termination, adding, “But we don’t know why they fired her, because there are various people who have had more time [off work] than she had.”
Still, Garcia’s termination is relevant to WFJ because one of the initiatives of the movement is lower health care costs for workers and to pursue increased job security. Currently, Pomona College is an at-will employer, which gives it the right to relieve all employees of employment, at any time, for any reason.
“The thing is people are very pressured here… There are many disabled people,” said Francisco, who himself was injured on the job and is currently fighting with a lawyer. He noted that there are workers with no insurance or very high health care costs, adding to the fear of injuries.
In response to the termination, workers organized a march on Jan. 19 on Alexander Hall, where they presented Karen Sisson with a letter condemning the school’s handling of the situation.
“The handling of frequent injuries such as this motivates us to come together and continue to fight for labor peace at Pomona College,” the letter read. “This is not just about Ms. Garcia, it is about how a person who has worked the better part of their life at this college should be treated when they are at their most vulnerable.”
“The rally was not to ask she not be fired or rehired, since it’s in line with college policy, but it was to demand there be kind of structural change so that policies like that can’t even exist, or that they can be contested if they do,” WFJ student volunteer Sam Gordon PO ‘11 said. “It was a call to resume negotiations for labor peace as a solution to similar unjust practices and other related firings over the years.”
“If a worker can be singled out for being vocal and can be let go because of a technicality in the way the college operates, that’s a circumstance that shouldn’t even happen,” Gordon added. “I think a union would give workers the protection from being fired unjustly.”
Gordon also noted that Garcia’s termination has given the movement momentum.
“I think her firing re-energized the workers in certain ways, and the students, because it showed exactly why they’ve been struggling for almost a year to get what they want,” Gordon said. “This is the standard practice of the college, this behavior is typical, and it’s totally unacceptable. None of them need additional reasons to be fighting, but if anything, this was a reminder why they’ve put their jobs at risk and for students, why they’re supporting workers.”
Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson emphasized that Garcia was not fired, but left under voluntary termination. She added that no one has been officially fired from dining in the last ten years.
“I see these statements that people are being threatened with being fired or terminated, [and] I think the way the college has operated speaks for itself,” Sisson said.
Brenda Rushforth, Assistant Vice President of Human Resources, explained that Pomona follows the worker’s compensation laws of the state.
“California employers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover any illness or injury that is deemed work-related,” she said.
According to Rushforth, the college “follows the recommendation of the medical professional,” and, with regards to the duration of compensation, “a worker is covered until their doctor has determined that they have reached maximum medical improvement.”
Maternity is considered a personal health condition and is covered by the state.
“An employee who is deemed disabled by their physician is covered under the provisions of the Pregnancy-Related Disability,” said Rushforth. “Pregnancy and work-related injuries are treated separately but may run concurrently,” she said.
According to Sisson, the decision to let an injured worker go after a certain amount of time is usually “because the medical professional has advised that they cannot return to their job.”
“All through the worker’s injury we are talking with the worker, with the medical professional. There’s a constant dialogue,” Sisson said. “But at the end of the day, we would be remiss in putting someone in a job that a doctor says is injurious to them, that they cannot perform.”
In light of Garcia’s firing, other workers have come forth with similar stories of voluntary termination. In 2008, Isabel Valdez, a former Pomona dining hall employee, was also forced to leave after an injury at work, which required surgery on her foot. She returned to work with a note from her doctor saying she was able to work with restrictions, but Valdez was told that her disabilities compensation had ended and that Pomona College would no longer employ her.
“I told my lawyer they completely destroyed me, physically and mentally, because it was an accident,” said Valdez, who had worked at the school for 16 years before the termination. “It’s not just because they say ‘you don’t have a job anymore.’ No, I went with my foot swollen like this.”
Valdez speculated that workers are afraid to go to Human Resources “because they don’t know how to treat a person.” She suggested that when she was injured there was a general lack of communication between workers and Human Resources. She also felt a lack of respect.
“I felt worse than a cockroach,” Valdez said of her ordeal. “Human resources is [supposed] to help the worker, not destroy them… But with me they did, and with who knows how many people. That’s why I tell [workers]: don’t let up. Form this union for the well-being of everyone. Because I didn’t have anyone to support me.”
Sisson acknowledged that “the administration [has] to take some responsibility for the fact that we probably haven’t done as good a job as we should at communicating with all of our workforce.” She suggested that something was being put together “that educates” workers on rights and benefits under specific policies.
Janet Ma and Jordan Cohen contributed to this article.