We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

May was a bad month for Vivian Robinson. With no dependable income other than food stamps, plus a knee-high stack of bills and two kids to care for, Robinson “was totally on zero,” she says. “I even tried to hit the number….I’m not a real religious person, but I was praying to God to give me a chance.”

Robinson knew that some of her neighbors worked shuttling rental cars for Budget Rent a Car. So one day at the end of May, she asked one of them whether Budget was hiring. The neighbor told Robinson that there were a few openings.

That’s no surprise: Every morning at around 5:30, employers in search of cheap day workers swoop through the streets of neighborhoods like Robinson’s Shaw community. Guaranteed to find folks down on their luck or desperate for some cash, they’re also all but guaranteed to find folks willing to take jobs without the assurances of regular work that most workers demand.

The next morning, Robinson waited for her friend’s employer and inquired about a position. “The [recruiter] said, ‘Do you have a valid driver’s license?’” claims Robinson. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he told me to get in [the van]….I was thinking, like, oh wow, maybe the doors were starting to open.”

Robinson says employer Paul Ando paid her for each car she shuttled—a sum that varied from $1 to $10 for local runs, up to $22 for trips to Pennsylvania. It would have been a good deal but for one small hitch: The number of cars employees got to return varied widely. Robinson says that some days she’d work 10 hours and have only $30 to show for it, because she didn’t get to return enough cars. “Some days I’d get work,” says Robinson. “But a lot of days I’d just stand around.”

To compound matters, Robinson says she scratched the paint on a van during her first week of work. She says Ando told her that he would send her an estimate for the cost of the damage. Robinson says she never received an estimate. But when payday came, she got something else—no paycheck. “I saw my [pay] envelope, and there were lines across it,” says Robinson. When she asked her supervisor about the check, she says he told her the scratch on the van had caused $2,000 in damage. Ando, when contacted by a reporter, denied all of Robinson’s charges and then hung up the phone.

Robinson claims she then signed a contract under which $50 would be taken out of each paycheck until the damage was paid off. A week later, she says, she got a check for $200. Robinson claims the check covered approximately 80 hours of work—about $2.50 an hour, or almost $3 below the minimum wage of $5.15. And, despite putting in another month of work, Robinson claims she never saw another check. She says her supervisor dodged and ducked her whenever payday came.

When Robinson took her complaints to Budget, she was told that she was not an employee of the rental car firm. Though her worksheets read “Budget Rent a Car” at the top, she worked for Premier Shuttle Service. Fed up, Robinson left the job in early July. Recently, a friend who worked for Ando brought Robinson a check for $40—way below the $200 she claims Ando owes her by the per-car rate. “I feel like I was used,” says Robinson. “I did what was asked of me, and I got absolutely nothing but the runaround….I didn’t get jack.”

Not getting jack is pretty typical for some day laborers. According to local labor activists, employers typically skirt minimum-wage laws by classifying such workers as contractors—and then paying them under the table.

Contractors, it turns out, are not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. “There are a lot of companies that classify people as contractors and get away with a lot of things,” says Kerry O’Brien, a staff attorney for the Workers Rights Project at the Zacchaeus Free Legal Clinic. And because homeless people—and poor workers like Robinson—are the least likely to sue, companies that need simple unskilled labor find a particularly exploitable market among them.

Anybody who wants to use the law for help will have to go through some tricky exercises in job definition. The line that divides employees and subcontractors is blurry—meaning people who never knew they were independent contractors often turn out to be. Pamela Banks, associate director of the District’s Office of Wage-Hour, says that complaints against car rental companies come in about twice a year—but almost always fall under the jurisdiction of Virginia or Maryland, because the biggest operations are at the area’s airports.

“We’ve certainly had complaints [about rental car shuttlers], and we’re certainly aware of day laborers,” adds Michael Seldon, a labor law representative for the Virginia Department of Labor. Seldon says that he gets three or four complaints a year but has no idea exactly how many car shuttlers work in Virginia.

Seldon says that Virginia lists about 15 standards for distinguishing between contractors and employees—including whether there is a written employment agreement and who controls the work schedule. Officials at the state’s Department of Labor say that no one attribute determines the relationship. Rather, they say, all the factors are considered together.

But even though the criteria are unclear, labor expert Mark Hager, a professor of law at American University, says that if the case came to court Budget’s shuttlers wouldn’t be considered contractors. “I have 98 percent confidence that if this was aired before the appropriate tribunal,” says Hager, “they would find that these were employees….[The more you have] independence of decision and your own equipment, the more you’re [considered] a contractor.”

Charles Brooks says he was approached with an offer to shuttle cars for Budget outside of a cafeteria run by the local charity So Others Might Eat (SOME). “They said, ‘Would you like to work?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Do you have a driver’s license.’ I said ‘Yeah,’” says Brooks. “I thought it would be all right—they gave you transportation out to Virginia and everything.”

Brooks—who was homeless at the time—says that either Ando or a crew chief would pick him up from SOME at 7 a.m. and drop him off at 11 p.m. Some days he worked longer. On a good day, Brooks says, he’d make about $100. But there were also plenty of bad days. “Do you know what it’s like to work from 7 in the morning to 2 in the morning, and all you have is $25 to show for it?” he asks.

Brooks says he got screwed in ways other than his per-car wages. He says that one day, a supervisor told him to take a car to a car wash. Brooks claims a brush fell onto the car and cracked the windshield. “When I went to pick up my check,” says Brooks, “they said, ‘You don’t have a check. We’ll send you an assessment.’” Brooks says he never got an assessment—or his check.

A Budget staffer identifying herself only as Mrs. Martin returned inquiries and said that Budget contracts its shuttling service out to Premier Shuttle Service. There is no Premier Shuttle Service listed in the phone book in Northern Virginia or in the District. Nor is there a Premier Shuttle Service registered with business oversight authorities in the District or Northern Virginia.

Budget identified Ando as the owner of Premier Shuttle Service. When reached at his home in Baltimore, Ando denied withholding any checks from his contractors. But he didn’t deny running Premier Shuttle Service.

Working with a lawyer from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Brooks filed suit against Budget on June 30. Citing estimates from D.C.’s Office of Wage-Hour of how much he should have gotten per hour, Brooks is demanding $4,120. His suit alleges that he “worked for Budget Rent a Car and was not paid wages due,” and that “wages [were] withheld for fraudulent reasons based upon a non-existent agreement.”

Kimberly Mulcahy, vice president of Corporate Communications for Budget Group Inc., claims she’s unaware of any suit filed against Budget.

It’s unclear whether Brooks is even on the right side of the fuzzy laws covering contract laborers. But even if he does get compensated for his work, the chances of any sort of industrywide reforms are slim. “I’m not aware of any systematic campaign,” says Hager. “And it’d be difficult to mount one, because [the problem] is invisible.” CP