Cook County Record

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Former HR worker alleges Pete's Fresh Market fired her for reporting hiring practices to immigration officials

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jul 30, 2015

Petes fresh market

A human resources administrator recently fired by Chicago area supermarket chain Pete’s Fresh Market has filed suit against her former employer, alleging she was wrongly terminated in retribution for her decision to ask U.S. immigration officials to investigate the employment eligibility of workers hired at Pete’s Fresh Market stores.

On July 29, Maureen Simmons introduced her complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against G.M. Warehouse Inc., parent company of the Pete’s Fresh Market chain, and various other entities involved in operating the dozen Pete’s Fresh Market stores in Chicago and the suburbs.

The complaint centers on the June 30 termination of Simmons from her job as a senior human resources generalist with G.M. Warehouse.

According to the complaint, Simmons had worked in the corporate offices of Pete’s Fresh Market since October 2014. In her role, she said she would routinely “review I-9 immigration forms and check identification of prospective employees” of the Pete’s stores.

Simmons said “on multiple occasions” she would refuse to sign off on documents certifying the legal eligibility of prospective employees to work in the U.S., which she believed “not to be genuine.”

She said she would also inform the owners and management at G.M. Warehouse and Pete’s Fresh Market of the allegedly less than genuine employment identification documents of the prospective workers.

But “on those occasions where Simmons refused to accept the identification, the employee was hired anyway with another individual certifying the I-9,” Simmons alleged in her complaint. Her complaint noted certifying forms I-9 that include false information could be a violation of federal law.

Simmons alleged management quickly moved to retaliate against her for her actions, saying management “started reassigning Ms. Simmons to perform menial and administrative duties as opposed to the more senior level H.R. duties that she had been hired to perform,” and began “micromanaging” and closely observing her work, including “pointing a video camera directly” at her desk and “eavesdropping on telephone calls.”

Simmons said she later discovered among current and past employees “significant non-compliance” with federal employment rules relating to the hiring of immigrants, including “forms that were supported with fraudulent identification.”

Her complaint alleges she was then ordered “to stop reviewing I-9s” at the company.

“When Ms. Simmons reminded one of the owners of G.M. Warehouse that it was against the law to employ people who were not authorized to work in the United States, Ms. Simmons was told … other grocery stores in the greater Chicago area do this,” Simmons’ complaint alleges.

Simmons said her discoveries and conversations with management at the stores led her to file a complaint with federal immigration enforcement officials on May 8.

About a month later, she said, “a member of the G.M. Warehouse and Pete’s Fresh Market Stores ownership and management team, along with some interns, were reviewing form I-9s from various Pete’s Fresh Market Stores with great fervor,” apparently in response to contact from federal immigration officials.

As she allegedly “was the only employee of any Pete’s Fresh Market store or of G.M. Warehouse to consistently raise concerns” about the employment review practices at the company, Simmons said she believed owners and management of the supermarkets “suspected” her of filing the complaint “when it (the company) received notice of the paper audit.”

She said the company then fired her on June 30.

Simmons’ complaint includes a count each alleging retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act.

She has requested the court order G.M. Warehouse to reinstate her to her previous position with back pay, along with an award of unspecified compensatory damages and attorney fees and costs.

She has requested a jury trial.

Simmons is represented in the action by attorney Fitzgerald T. Bramwell, of Chicago.

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