Long Island City bakery that threatened to fire immigrant workers reverses course for now

Photo via Twitter/Brandworkers

A Long Island City bakery that told its workers they had to produce papers or be fired in 10 days said it was granted an extension by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prove that its employees are legally allowed to continue work.

Employees at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City received a letter from the bakery on March 15 stating that DHS conducted an audit demanding updated I-9 documentation from 31 of its employees. The employees, some of whom have worked at the bakery for more than a decade, held a rally to protest the abrupt announcement.

The rally was held in conjunction with Brandworkers, a local nonprofit that advocates for food production workers. Brandworkers announced on March 29 that Tom Cat Bakery has “pledged to do everything possible under the law to stand with its veteran employees.” The company also received an extension from DHS to produce up-to-date I-9 papers.

Originally, Tom Cat Bakery told employees that they would be fired by March 28 without severance pay if they could not produce papers.

“It was brought to our attention that documents you provided at the time of hiring in form I-9, does not currently authorize you to work in the United States,” the letter read.“You have 10 business days to provide us with valid documentation and employment eligibility documentation for completing the form I-9, you are considered by the Homeland Security Investigations to be unauthorized to work in the United States.”

An I-9 audit forces employers to provide documentation to prove that employees can work in the country legally. If they refuse to provide this proof, companies can be hit with large fines or be visited by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) to remove undocumented workers.

“We risked a lot to come to this country in order to make a better life for our kids,” said Librada Antigua, another Tom Cat employee and Brandworkers member. “The Trump administration may want us to disappear, but we’re not leaving our children for anything. Our unity is our strength, and our commitment is to victory.”

A number of elected officials including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Senator Jose Peralta and Councilman Mark Levine said they pledged to stand with employees and attributed the latest audit to President Trump’s immigration policies.

“This is yet another example of the toxic atmosphere caused by the efforts of this presidential administration to demonize law-abiding immigrants with deep ties to the community,” Mark-Viverito said.

In a previous interview with The Village Voice, James Rath, the vice president and general manager of Tom Cat Bakery said that were was “nothing to report” and that the company was “in the middle of a standard HSI [Homeland Security Investigation] documentation audit.”

The company received several negative Facebook reviews after employees held a rally there.

“You profit off undocumented workers and throw them away like garbage when the Feds come knocking,” said Facebook user Tia Keenan. “You could’ve lawyered up but you chose to collaborate instead. You could’ve been a leader in the industry — instead you’re just collaborating profiteers.”

Tom Cat Bakery is the oldest artisanal bakery in New York City and its clients include Citarella, Darden Restaurants and the Grand Hyatt. It is a subsidiary of Yamazaki Baking Company and one of the world’s largest bread-baking corporations.

Gabriel Morales, spokesperson for Brandworkers, said that workers will continue to fight to stay at the company after April 21.

“Tom Cat workers, who have already given many years of faithful service to the bakery, look forward to many more years working with Tom Cat Bakery, and feeding the people of New York City with some of the best bread in the nation,” he said.

It is not clear what will happen if Tom Cat Bakery fails to produce updated I-9 forms to DHS by April 21. Morales said that the bakery has agreed to look at sponsorship if the option is viable for certain employees. But that route may not be available to everyone.

Brandworkers has set up a GoFundMe account to “help [employees] meet essential expenses, like rent and food.” They are asking for $77,500, which would cover about one month of expenses, or $2,500, for each worker.

“Brandworkers’ members have committed to stand together and struggle for each and every one of their co-workers rights and jobs,” Morales said.