Last Wednesday, employees at Tom Cat Bakery, the industrial-scale provider of high-end breads and baked goods to restaurants and hotels throughout the region, received a letter from the company's payroll administrator: "Tom Cat bakery has been audited by the Department of Homeland Security," the letter stated. "After an ongoing audit, 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." Employees had 10 days to prove that they have the proper documentation to legally work in the country. The letter didn't specify what would happen if they were unable to, but the implication was that they would be fired.
For the workers, many of whom are undocumented, the news came as a slap in the face. "After hearing this news we couldn't believe it," said Josias D'Avilla, a Peruvian immigrant who has worked for Tom Cat for ten years. D'Avilla and some of his colleagues picketed outside Tom Cat's Long Island City headquarters on Tuesday morning. "We've given so many years to the company, so many sacrifices that made this company go. We picked up this company from the ground as workers, with so many years that we gave to this company with our lives."
Tomcat was founded in a garage by baker Noel Labat-Comess in 1987, but soon grew quickly. Today the company fills an entire city block in Long Island City, and boasts of delivering over 400 varieties of bread and baked goods to customers as far as 150 miles away, and distributes frozen baked products all around the country. Labat-Comess sold Tom Cat to a pair of private equity companies in 2008. Last year, those companies sold the company that owns Tom Cat, Bakewise Brands, to Yamakazi, the largest baked-goods company in Japan.
In 2012, employees of Tom Cat won a hard-fought campaign to organize through Brandworkers, a workers' center originally started with help from the Industrial Workers of the World. When news of the letter came down last week, they determined to organize and resist.
Some believe that management's hand is being forced by an ICE audit, while others are skeptical. "I think the company has brought this forward," said Henry Rivera, 29, who came to the United States from Honduras in 2005 and has worked in Tom Cat's packing department for 11 years. "We haven't seen any government seals so far, all we've seen is the letter. The company changed ownership last year, and we believe that maybe the new administration is trying to take advantage of a new political climate."
In an email, James Rath, the Vice President and General Manager of Tom Cat, said there was "nothing to report. We are in the middle of a standard HSI [Homeland Security Investigation] documentation audit."
Requests for comment sent to Tom Cat's parent company, Bakewise Brands, by phone and email did not receive a response.
"We have been making continuous efforts to get the employers to share more details with us," said Carmela Huang, an attorney with the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center who is assisting the Tom Cat workers. "Despite all our efforts, they have refused to engage with us." Noel Labat-Comess, who founded and sold the bakery, declined to comment. Calls and emails to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New York office also went unanswered by before this was published.
City Council Member Mark Levine addressed the workers, urging the Tom Cat to stand by its workers and offer them work-visa sponsorship to allow them to continue to stay. "We reject the racist policies of Donald Trump's ICE, which have targeted decent hard-working New Yorkers who have done nothing but contribute to this community, contribute to this economy and made our city and country a better place," Levine said. "There is no justification for targeting these workers. The targeting of these workers by ICE runs contrary to our values as New Yorkers, contrary to our values as Americans, and contrary to our interests."
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