Day Laborers Conquer Their Fears and Recover Stolen Wages

The laborers worked in at least five different construction projects in Brooklyn and Queens, owned by the same contractor. (Photo via El Diario)

The laborers worked in at least five different construction projects in Brooklyn and Queens, owned by the same contractor. (Photo via El Diario)

When they began their struggle, the 11 day laborers were anxious. They were about to go to the authorities – the same authorities who wanted to expel them from the country – to report that they were the victims of labor abuse.

“There is always fear because we are undocumented,” said Alejandro, a 61-year-old Peruvian worker. Their boss owed each of them between $3,000 and $9,000 and had told them that he was not going to pay. “Most of us were hesitant in the beginning,” said Eric, also from Peru.

One of the main concerns Alejandro had was being apprehended by “la migra,” a nickname for immigration authorities. “There is fear [among people] because of everything that has been going on regarding deportations.”

The fear of coming out of the shadows notwithstanding, the workers knew that the only way to find justice and get their unpaid wages was to bring their boss to justice.

“When we sat to talk with the district attorney, they told us not to worry; that it would be different here,” said Alejandro.

The outcome was different indeed, not only because they were treated just like workers with legal status but because they were able to get the money they were owed.

On Tuesday, June 9, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson reached an agreement with contractor William Dorvillier, who plead guilty to first-degree fraud and was forced to pay a total of $67,220 to the 11 day laborers.

“Not paying laborers their wages, especially when it comes to migrant workers, is an all-too-common problem, but it will not be tolerated in Brooklyn,” said Thompson.

Still, many day laborers are reluctant to turn to the authorities to recoup their stolen wages. In the case of these 11 workers, a key component was the work of attorney Byron Lassin, who often defends construction workers who have been involved in accidents.

“If you go to a corner and talk to the laborers, as I always do, 199 out of 200 will tell you that they are having trouble getting their wages,” said Lassin. “They are all ripped off at one point or another, but many of them are scared and will not take part in a lawsuit.”

Eric was the first one to reach out to the lawyer. “He told me that he needed more [cases] in order to win the lawsuit. We were able to get 11 people together,” said Eric. “Still, some five or six did not want to risk it, both out of fear and because they needed to make sure they were able to continue working so they could pay their bills.”

The laborers – all of whom refrained from giving out their last names to avoid problems with immigration authorities – worked in at least five separate construction sites owned by Dorvillier in Brooklyn and Queens.

According to nonprofit New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), which fights for the rights of immigrant workers, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 day laborers in New York City, many of whom have recently arrived from their countries of origin.

NICE and a coalition of organizations were able to secure $500,000 in the city’s recently-approved budget for fiscal year 2016, which started on July 1, to guarantee the continuation of the Day Laborer Workforce Initiative (DLWI). The program funds worker centers serving laborers throughout the five boroughs.

Lawsuit options

Lassin said that, while laborers have other options, they are less effective. “They can go to the Department of Labor, but that will take a long time. They can also sue in court, but it is very hard to prove the case,” said the attorney. “But if the district attorney is willing to prosecute these felonies, that is an effective way to get their [stolen] wages.”

During the legal proceedings, the employer said that he had no intention of paying the workers because he was bankrupt, which he was unable to prove. The group of laborers decided to continue with the case, and Lassin kept working alongside the district attorney. At all times, they were told that there would be no contact with immigration services and there was nothing to worry about in that respect.

“We had a good experience there; they treated us well. They told us to speak freely. There was no pressure, and we felt that they could help us attain justice,” said Carlos, 26, a Mexican worker.

Although the case lasted nearly a year, the laborers say the time passed by quickly because they were not expecting a decision in their favor. “We all thought we’d never see that money,” said Eric. “But thank God, this happened and we were paid.”

Dorvillier had to pay the money to the district attorney’s office, which distributed it among the affected according to the time sheets that certified the hours they had worked. This is why experts recommend not only to not be afraid to speak up, but also to keep receipts and written proof as evidence of their labor.

“I call on all workers who have been denied their full wages to contact my office. I promise to investigate their cases to ensure that employers will restitute any stolen salaries,” said Thompson.

According to the day laborers, Dorvillier closed his business. He could not be reached for comment.


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