November 14. 2015 10:30PM
Wage theft is pervasive in low-wage jobs, and the targets are often immigrants. When they work across state lines, claiming their rightful pay can be like chasing a ghost.
The luxury apartments where Gianni and Christofer and Juan worked lend urban sophistication to the city of Melrose, Massachusetts.
At Alta Stone Place — a self-described "hip and exclusive" converted mill building 60 miles from home in Providence — they and others in their crew hung drywall for months.
Sometimes for less than they say they were owed. And, in the final two weeks, for nothing. That's their claim.
"They were supposed to pay us every week," but they did not, says Gianni Batres, a Guatemalan immigrant who lives in Providence and co-owns Alexis Construction Co. "They would be owing a thousand dollars, five hundred dollars.
"Then we would ask them when they were going to pay the rest. They would tell us to wait, because the company didn’t have the money. And then the last two weeks they didn’t pay us at all," he alleges.
Through the Central Falls workers' rights organization Fuerza Laboral (Power of Workers), Batres and four others in his crew filed complaints with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office against Allstate Interiors of Monroe, New York, claiming $6,000 for two weeks' work in 2014.
All together, Batres and his entire crew say, Allstate Interiors, a subcontractor that hired Batres' company, owes them more than $40,000. After Allstate declined to pay, Fuerza and several Massachusetts community organizing groups held job-site protests to press the property owners, Wood Partners, for the full amount. The dispute remains unresolved.
Allstate Interiors president Fred Soward takes offense, calling the claim "a scam" and "a shakedown." In a phone interview, he said he has declined to pay any more: "We really don't owe anybody anything."
The case illustrates the conundrum of low-wage workers on the bottom rungs of chains of subcontractors, a murky environment that advocacy groups say clouds financial responsibility in wage disputes. It's more difficult to pursue a claim when these workers travel from state to state, they say. Sometimes it's like chasing a ghost.
"If the companies are out of state, it's hard to locate them," says Phoebe Gardener, community organizer with Fuerza Laboral. "They can disappear in a second." If work took place in Massachusetts, for example, but the company is not based there, "there's no one in the [attorney general's office] in the jurisdiction to go and track them down. A lot of these subs, they stop answering their phones. They change addresses ..."
Diego Low is coordinator at the MetroWest Worker Center in Framingham, Massachusetts, which, along with Fuerza Laboral, belongs to the Immigrant Workers Coalition Collective in Boston. He says: "When you get these layers of subcontractors out of the state, you make it nigh impossible for people to recover wages without major-league support ..."
Legal fees can run "into the thousands." Losing work to show up at court is nearly impossible, Low says. And sometimes, given the mobile nature of the jobs, the workers move on.
But wage theft is not confined to itinerant workers. It is pervasive in low-wage jobs, particularly among immigrants, including those without documents.
"I think all of the studies indicate that immigrant workers are at risk of wage theft at a rate that is just far greater than native-born American workers," says Robert McCreanor, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice.
"It's fair to say it's ubiquitous in the low-wage immigrant workforce, particularly in industries like construction and restaurant and domestic work and landscaping," he says.
Several Rhode Island workers who have filed wage claims tell their stories:
José Henao immigrated to the United States from Colombia three years ago through a family petition filed by his daughter, who is a U.S. citizen. He is 53, and in Colombia, "there are no jobs for someone my age," he says.
In Colombia, Henao worked his way up from garbage collector and street sweeper to assistant supervisor of a public works department, he said. Possessing a green card, Henao got a job as a painter for LazCo Contracting, Inc., of Woburn, Mass.
Henao was glad to have the job, although the schedule was rigorous: he'd rise at 5 a.m. to arrive by 7 a.m. in Lawrence or Worcester or Manchester, New Hampshire. He says he worked until 3:30, or sometimes until 5:30 p.m. Only after workers complained was lunch break extended from 15 minutes to half an hour. Sometimes he worked on weekends.
Henao says he was glad for the work until he realized he wasn't getting paid overtime. He filed a claim for $1,800 with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office this spring. He says he's owed $7,000, including wages for work in New Hampshire. His former employer, Mike Lazos, president of LazCo Contracting, disputes the claim.
Henao worked at "old factories" under renovation "about two hours from here, and a lot of times it was four hours on the way back because of traffic," he said through an interpreter in his Pawtucket apartment. "It was tough."
"The problem I had with the boss is we would work overtime and he wouldn't pay," Henao says. "There was a time where he took four weeks to pay us ..." Eventually, Henao says, he began asking, "Where's the overtime?" He says a job supervisor told him, "No no no, he [Lazos] only pays straight time."
Henao says he was paid in cash until he complained that "the way they paid me under the table doesn't work for me." He says he was put on the books, but instructed to use a Massachusetts address.
Bathroom breaks were allowed, but workers were told to "make it fast," he says. Coffee breaks were not. "We would hide to have coffee. We'd go into another apartment." The workers feared being fired if caught.
"All the people working for LazCo were immigrants. And almost all are from Guatemala. And almost all were undocumented," he says. "I know because we got to know them, and they would say, 'Good for you, because you have papers.'"
Henao says he was fired in March, and sought help from Fuerza Laboral, which helped him file his claim.
Former co-workers asked why he had filed. "I said, 'because he is not paying our overtime, and you can do the same,'" Henao says. "But they said, 'If I sue, then immigration is going to come after me.' That's what they are afraid of."
Henao now works at a Cumberland factory where he gets three breaks per shift.
In a phone interview, LazCo president Lazos said Henao "has been paid in full."
"His complaint was he wasn't paid overtime. What he's misunderstanding is that overtime is over 40 hours. So sometimes I would have them work on a Saturday, but then they wouldn't work [one day] during the week," says Lazos. "So it would never be over 40 hours."
Copies of time sheets Henao filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office show multiple weeks in which he worked more than 40 hours.
Lazos says he believes Henao's claims are "in retaliation because we ended up firing him" for what Lazos described as poor performance.
Asked why Henao was allowed to remain on the job for so many months if his work was unsatisfactory, Lazos said, "He wasn't getting the job done, what we were asking of him ... You show him a task and you have to keep on going back and showing him again and again and again and he still don't do it right."
Lazos added, "I'm an immigrant myself. Do they exploit immigrant workers on construction sites? Absolutely. I run into it all the time. Is it hard for them? Absolutely. But the truth is, they come to this country and they don't adapt ... what happens is they don't learn the language because they don't necessarily need it."
That creates safety issues, Lazos said. "It's a safety issue if I'm yelling out, 'Hey watch out, be careful,' if they don't understand."
Lazos disputes Henao's claim that he hires undocumented workers. As for Henao's assertion that he was initially paid in cash, Lazos first said he pays workers only by check — but then said, "sometimes I pay cash."
The snow shoveler
On Feb. 27 of this year, as roofs collapsed throughout New England under historic levels of snow, Jorge Rodriguez traveled by van from Cranston to somewhere in Massachusetts with more than a dozen other men to shovel snow off rooftops.
The weather was brutal. When they left before 6 a.m., the temperature was 8 degrees. It never rose above 30 all day.
Rodriguez, a former farm owner from Guatemala, said he's not exactly sure where he worked that day. It was the day he worked on the exposed roof of a three-story building somewhere in Massachusetts, reached by clambering up an icy ladder; or another day when a hydraulic lift carried him to the fourth-floor roof of a New Bedford building he believes was a nursing home.
This much Rodriguez knows: he shoveled while knee-deep in snow, all day, with only a brief lunch break.
The drifts "were really, really tall," above the height of a six-foot door, he said. The crew hurled the snow over the walls to the ground below.
Rodriguez said he never got paid for that day, a claim outlined in a District Court complaint filed by the Rhode Island Center for Justice on his behalf and that of a co-worker. That civil action names the man who recruited and drove them to the job as the defendant: The Journal was unable to locate him.
Rodriguez says, "It was only $160. But there's a lot of people who are owed a lot of money for a lot of hours." Rodriguez says he hopes that by his filing a claim, other workers "will demand their money."
McCreanor, the Center for Justice director, says, "Here there is a scenario in which an employee has been employed at different sites across state lines, but can bring a single claim in Rhode Island if there is enough of a presence in Rhode Island.
"And they were essentially recruited by someone who lived in their neighborhood in Providence, and he would drive them to different locations," McCreanor says. "The truth is, the workers might not know whether they’re in Rhode Island or Massachusetts." On top of that, they may not know "who is actually their employer. Or whose work site they’re at."
"When a worker comes to us seeking legal assistance when they think they haven’t been paid, the first issue is identifying the employer. Maybe the complainant only has a cellphone number [of the employer]; maybe they’ve been picked up with a truck with a name on the side of the truck.
"After that initial stage, assuming we are able to resolve those questions sufficiently to proceed — then it’s jurisdictional. If our client is working for one [entity] in multiple locations but for a single employer, we might be able to proceed," said McCreanor.
Gianni Batres, whose case against Allstate Interiors for work done on Alta Stone Place in Massachusetts remains unresolved, says he was forced to borrow $34,000 to pay his workers at Alexis Construction. Some have yet to be paid. He could not provide them with work for a year. He barely made his mortgage payments. "It was tight," he says.
Elizabeth Tully, staff lawyer with Justice at Work in Boston, is representing Batres, his brother Christofer Batres, and Juan Ortiz, the principals of Alexis Construction. She said she will seek a negotiated settlement, but "we'll be filing in court if we can't resolve by negotiating with the company."
"From our perspective they are the ones who absorbed the loss. From our perspective even though they are incorporated, they are employees of Allstate, not independent contractors," Tully says.
Allstate president Fred Soward says he has the paperwork to prove Batres has been paid in full.
"He signed every single paperwork. He signed every single waiver. He had a contract. I have canceled checks with his signature. And I have his contract with his signature," Soward said.
Allstate's controller, Gus McGill, sent copies of that paperwork to The Journal. They show two different spellings: Some are signed "Gianni Batres." Others are signed "Gianni BastReS."
Asked about the discrepancy, McGill said, "I have no idea. I couldn't comment on that ... I have what I have there. It is what it is. That's what he [Batres] sent back to us." Soward said, "My foreman can vouch for me" that Batres signed all the documents.
Fuerza and Batres dispute the signatures. In a June 1 letter to Allstate, Fuerza said signatures on pay receipts and waivers of mechanics' lien rights "are not authentic signatures but mere copies of a signature that does not actually belong to Gianni Batres."
Batres says, "We compared them and they are very different. I know how I make my letters. Even if you're not an analyst of signatures and handwriting, you can tell they're different."
Meanwhile, Gianni and his brother Christofer continue traveling from job site to job site, from one state to the next — logging 10,000 miles on their truck since they bought it a little more than a month ago.
Christofer finds jobs for them online, often on craigslist, sometimes on roadside signs, sometimes, by word of mouth.
"I'm sad because they don't pay us, and we're going all around and then you don't see the money," says Christofer. "One has their family ..." Gianni continues: "And all the bills, and you pay the insurance for the car, and the insurance for the workers, and the gas ..." And then they shrugged.
The restaurant manager
Flor Salazar found herself on the receiving end of a baseball bat when she and two dozen others protested outside former restaurant owner Juan Noboa's house in Providence at 6 a.m. on Oct. 31.
Noboa, who co-owned the now-shuttered Café Atlantic in Providence, faces assault charges over the attack on Salazar, and on a police officer at the scene. Salazar received emergency treatment at the hospital for multiple bruises on her arm and hand.
Salazar was one of four people who filed — and won — wage claims against Noboa and his former business partner, José Bren, through the state Department of Labor and Training. The DLT ruled she is owed $2,160 and the group as a whole $3,691, although they sought roughly $17,000.
Salazar says she and the others helped get the restaurant up and running in 2014: it opened that August and closed at the end of the next month.
"We would leave my house every day at 8:30 a.m." to go to work, she says, "and we'd stay until midnight or 12:30."
But Noboa never paid, and that led the protesters to his Olneyville doorstep before dawn. Subsequently, the DLT filed a claim in Superior Court to pursue Noboa for the money.
"On one hand I feel good because I am very [determined] to continue in this fight," says Salazar. That includes working through community organizers to press the point "that there are parts of the system that don't work for us."
"I want there to be justice," she says. "We're talking about justice in this situation."
On Twitter: @karenleez