Former ESPN Zone workers protest sudden layoffs

A group of workers laid off from the ESPN Zone say the company violated federal workplace protection laws when it suddenly closed the Inner Harbor restaurant in Baltimore two weeks ago — an allegation the company denies.

More than 20 of the 140 people who worked at the sports-themed restaurant and entertainment venuegathered outside the Power Plant development Wednesday morning in a protest organized by the United Workers Association of Baltimore, an advocacy group for low-wage workers.

The Baltimore ESPN Zone was one of five locations nationwide that closed. Its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., kept open locations in Los Angeles and Anaheim, Calif.

Former employees accuse ESPN Zone of not giving proper notice of pending layoffs as required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. The business shut down June 15, days after the company announced the closure. Workers gave the company seven days to meet with them before filing unspecified legal action.

"Today, we are calling on ESPN to do the right thing and meet with workers," said Ashley Hufnagel, a leadership organizer with United Workers.

Generally, the WARN Act requires companies with more than 50 employees to give 60 days' notice before closing. ESPN Zone did file a WARN notice letting state officials know that workers would lose their jobs as of June 16, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The company told state officials it would be placing employees on paid administrative leave through Aug. 15, said department spokesman Bernie Kohn.

Crystal Howard, a spokeswoman for ESPN, said workers will continue to be paid for two months even though they won't be working at the restaurant. After Aug. 15, the employees will receive an additional severance benefit based on their time of service, Howard said.

"We are actually in compliance with the WARN Act," Howard said.

Hufnagel said workers were short-changed because ESPN Zone should have calculated severance based on their last paycheck during the summer busy season, as opposed to their pay over the past six months.

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