Erik Oeverndiek/Daily Journal
Daniel Vicente Gonzalez, 9, Luiz Gustavo Gonzalez, 5, Adriana Gonzalez and Jonia Mare listen to prayers during a union meeting at Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church in South San Francisco Thursday night.
A couple hundred gathered Thursday to hear the plight of food service workers in San Mateo County fighting for living wages, job security, better benefits and improved working conditions like the ones given to those they serve.
Workers shared experiences of unfair transfers, harmful work conditions and lack of support by their employer, Guckenheimer. Their stories were told to illustrate the need for companies like Genentech — which contracts with Guckenheimer for food services — to adopt a responsible contractor code of conduct to raise the food service standards in the county. A panel of local leaders including state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, county Supervisor Jerry Hill, Henry Rutland, president of the San Mateo County NAACP, decided to urge Genentech to adopt the code.
Not everyone was in favor of the change. Workers also filled the back of Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in South San Francisco hosting the panel, "Bad Jobs are Bad for San Mateo County,” donning yellow shirts that read, "no union.” The group often yelled negative comments as people spoke of hardship.
Genentech has a code of conduct, but workers say it lacks community backing. Three basic requests are missing: No worker retention, no affordable health insurance and no way to organize without interference, said Hill.
"I think when the facts are exposed and Genentech realizes the truth of the workers’ situation, they’ll see the importance of supporting this type of code,” he said.
Just Wednesday, Genentech reported a first-quarter profit surge of 68 percent over the same quarter last year with $706 million in earnings. Workers told stories of not enough pay, working two jobs to support families living in other countries and the consequences of speaking up.
Sonia Moreno has worked at Genentech for nine years. The extra work she has taken on as jobs go unfilled keeps her from her three daughters, she explained.
Oscar Mernio began working for Guckenheimer three years ago. Since he began speaking up about changes six months ago, he’s been transferred numerous times without warning or consultation. He was fired, then rehired after the community rallied behind him and another worker. Mernio works two jobs to support his family at home in El Salvador, specifically to pay for the education of his son, step daughter and niece.
"This is a job with no job security,” he said. "We do not know if we’ll have a job tomorrow.”
Mernio described working conditions that caused him to fracture two fingers and be around hazardous chemicals without the option of seeing a doctor.
Ri Hua Zheng is an assistant cook at Genentech who has worked with Guckenheimer for more than five years. He began as a truck driver and was one day told to report to a different building the next day. He had been demoted to a dishwasher. Zheng said the company is trying to buy him off by offering a promotion, but he still wants change.
Guckenheimer was not asked to participate in the conversation, however, Frank Lapetina, executive vice president and COO, distributed a prepared statement.
"Unfortunately, many of the statements being presented as facts tonight by the union are simply not true. The truth is that our employees have been the target of aggressive union organizing for many months. They have said no to union representation each and every time,” he said.
Two employees did speak of highly of Guckenheimer, area manager Mauricio Valenzuela and chef manager Rossangeles Garcia.
Valenzuela moved from Venezuela 11 years ago to be hired as a cook at Guckenheimer. He worked his way up to bigger and better things. He’s a single dad who raised his daughter now in college.
"There is plenty of time. You always have time. You just need too know how to manage it,” he said.
Garcia learned her son, who was living in Nicaragua, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She asked Guckenheimer for help and was able to take six paid months off to spend with her son.
"I was there to hold my son’s hand. I was there because I work hard,” she said. "Thank God I have a good job.”
Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.