Undercurrents

If you think shopping at Publix can be harrowing, try working there

On September 24, 1998, 28-year-old Louis Gallart was crushed to death while on the job at the Publix warehouse in Deerfield Beach. Gallart was employed as an unloader, meaning he used an electric tugger to remove empty pallets and crates from trucks. According to a Broward Sheriff's Office report, Gallart's tugger got stuck in reverse and pinned him against a metal bar.

As it turns out, Gallart was one of five Publix workers killed on the job at the warehouse since 1988. That deplorable safety record prompted then-New Times reporter Harris Meyer to investigate. In his story, "Publix: Where Working Can Be Lethal,"published February 10, 2000, Meyer described a workplace where employees were pushed to work hard and fast and safety was given short shrift. The story triggered a surprise investigation by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) the following May that briefly shut down the warehouse.

Meyer's piece also triggered a campaign of retribution by management against workers, according to Steve Marrs, a representative of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union. Marrs, who spends his time trying to unionize Publix workers, says working conditions at the Deerfield Beach warehouse have worsened since the story ran. "I think after that article they retaliated against employees," says Marrs. He believes the inspection really irked company brass. "OSHA went out there, shut the place down for half a day, and went through it with a fine-toothed comb."

Since the article Publix has increased production standards for many warehouse employees to superhuman levels, Marrs claims. For example selectors, the people who pull items off warehouse shelves to be shipped to stores, are required to move an average of 350 cases per hour. Some selectors work ten-hour days. Failure to meet the quota six times in as many months can result in disciplinary measures, including firing.

Publix management, which didn't respond to requests for comment, knows the warehouse has problems. Undercurrents received, anonymously by fax, a January 1, 2001, internal investigation report that identifies safety issues including defective shelving that results in smashed fingers, old equipment prone to failure, and broken latches that cause heavy warehouse carts to careen out of control. "The orange carts have also been known to tip completely over due to poor wheel placement," the report states.

Marrs says the higher quotas, combined with the company's lackadaisical attitude toward safety, make working there more dangerous than ever: "This job makes a young man old and an old man dead."


Last week Tangela Sears asked a Broward County judge to seal public records detailing the death of her mother, Miramar resident Vera Lawrence. The resulting court scene bordered on the surreal.

Lawrence, age 53, died of silicone poisoning March 20 after would-be plastic surgeon Mark Hawkins injected her buttocks and thighs 36 times with industrial-grade silicone. Hawkins, who was charged with third-degree murder, manslaughter, and practicing medicine without a license, apparently was going door-to-door proffering his services, unhindered by the lack of a medical license.

Of course any South Florida story about fatal, unlicensed plastic surgery is likely to be covered like the Second Coming. But Sears thought the print and broadcast coverage of her mom's death was too invasive and wanted it stopped. When independent filmmaker Rob Feldman asked assistant state attorney Howard Scheinberg for transcripts of the 911 call to Miramar police, videotapes, autopsy results, and other records for a documentary about illegal medical procedures, Sears could take it no more. Ignoring Scheinberg's advice, she asked Broward circuit judge Peter Weinstein to close the records to the public. That put Scheinberg in something of a bind: He had the unenviable task of defending Florida's open-records laws and Sears's rights as a victim.

On July 18 at about 3:30 p.m. in Weinstein's fourth-floor courtroom at the Broward County courthouse, Hawkins, sporting a prison-issue khaki jumpsuit and handcuffs, sat next to Donnie Hendrix, his traveling companion on cosmetic-surgery road trips to South Carolina and Florida. The place was crawling with attorneys, including noted media whore Ellis Rubin, who could have doubled for Colonel Sanders with his curly white hair, trim white beard, and magnolia-white blazer. Rubin was present as counsel for Cory Williams, the man who rented the apartment where Hawkins allegedly shot Lawrence full of silicone. Williams faces the same charges as Hawkins.

Sears told Judge Weinstein the media coverage caused her "constant pain.... I think my objection to [accessing the records] is because of the way the media has covered it."

Then Scheinberg asked her, "What do you think you would gain by preventing a journalist or anybody else from having copies of the police reports and..."

"Privacy," Sears interrupted.

Understandable but not likely at this point.

The courtroom started jumping when Rubin stood to grill Sears about Williams's involvement. After they exchanged heated words, Sears got to the point. "This has nothing to do with [Williams]," she said.

"Well then I can't see why we're here," Rubin snapped, never one to miss a sound bite opportunity.

Though Weinstein looked a touch bored throughout the proceedings, he listened politely. Then he summarily dismissed Sears's motion.

 
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