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ESPN Zone workers file WARN Act suit

Five Baltimore residents who lost their jobs when the downtown ESPN Zone closed in June sued The Walt Disney Co. on Monday in federal court, claiming a law governing plant closings entitles each of them to 60 days’ pay in addition to the severance they received.

To publicize the case, the three cooks, a hostess and a busser marched between the still-vacant Inner Harbor restaurant space and the U.S. District Court along with other low-wage restaurant workers associated with United Workers, an advocacy group.

Lawyer Andrew D. Freeman said Disney clearly knew about the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act and “tried to twist it in a way that suited them.”

“They were supposed to get 60 days plus the severance, but what Disney apparently did was pay them their severance over 60 days,” Freeman said.

An ESPN spokesman issued a statement denying the claims.

“ESPN Zone has met its legal obligations and the lawsuit is without merit,” wrote Rob Tobias, ESPN’s vice president of media relations.

Freeman said the plaintiffs worked between half- and full-time and made anywhere from $7 to $12 per hour, meaning each claim could be worth $2,000 to $4,000. The severance payments amounted to one week’s average pay for each year of service.

Disney issued a press release on June 9, indicating it would close most of its seven sports-themed restaurants, according to the suit. But the Baltimore workers did not receive written notice that their location was affected until June 15 — the last day, Freeman said.

“Had they kept it open for 60 days, the workers would’ve been working in June, July and August,” Freeman said, the restaurant’s “most profitable time.” Instead, their severance was calculated based on earnings in the previous six months, which included last winter’s historic snowfall.

WARN actions generally follow the closure of industrial plants, but the law “applies equally to any large layoff,” that is, more than 50 workers, at an employer of at least 100 people, Freeman said. The statute does not provide for any multiplication of damages, but does allow a judge to award attorneys’ fees.

According to the putative class action, there are 150 potential class members from the Baltimore ESPN Zone. Freeman said laid-off workers from the chain’s other four shuttered restaurants, in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, and Washington, D.C., also might join the action.

The Anaheim and Los Angeles locations remain open.

The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, which represents United Workers in a broader organizing campaign and obtained Monday’s parade permit, cannot, by law, bring class actions, Freeman said, so it referred the case to his firm, Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.