Stolen pay: R.I. workers tell their stories

by Karen Lee Ziner

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:

The painter

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."