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Thursday, November 19, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ernst Files Lawsuit Against Union Local

Times Staff

Squabbles between Ernst and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1001 are heating up in court.

Union complaints about off-the-clock work and unlawful pay practices have prompted the home-improvement chain to file a lawsuit alleging defamation and consumer protection violations by the union and its legal counsel.

"We are very disappointed with Ernst's frivolous attempt to distract from the union's effort to stop and remedy off-the-clock work," local President Joe Peterson said in a statement. "We tried through quiet diplomacy and mediation with Ernst to resolve the issue of employees working without pay and other issues."

The union has been working without a contract since Nov. 1, when the previous one expired. Members have voted to authorize a strike. In October, a federal mediator was called in to contract talks.

Peterson said one type of off-the-clock work involves training required for workers who want to qualify for step-pay increases. But he said Ernst has not provided sufficient scheduled work time, forcing many employees to do the training on their own time. As a result, he said, Ernst has not paid them as required by law.

Ernst filed the lawsuit against the union and its lawyers in King County Superior Court Nov. 3 in response to leaflets distributed by the union with what the company considered defamatory statements, said Monty Reese, Ernst marketing senior vice president.

Reese added that the company doesn't know of any instances in which employees were made to work off-the-clock without pay.

"Certainly our position is that as a company we do not authorize and do not support anything other than pay for work," said Reese. "We are not aware of any specific allegation by an employee that they have been asked to or forced to put in time off the clock."

Reese added that the time-off-the-clock issue was covered in the previous contract, and that Peterson's public airing of the issue late in negotiations indicates "the union's inability and unwillingness to mediate at the table."

Local 1001 has established a multistate task force to identify current and former Ernst employees who believe they are owed back pay for off-the-clock work. The union represents about 475 employees

in 21 Ernst stores in King and Snohomish counties and a distribution center.

The company formerly was owned by Pay'n Save Corp. but now is a

unit of financially ailing Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of Newark, N.J. Mutual Benefit has been in receivership since July 1991, and its assets have been frozen. Peterson said it's wrong to expect Ernst employees in Seattle to help bail out a mismanaged East Coast insurance company.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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