Payoff Pending: Jose Sales cleaned out hurricane-ravaged casinos for a month only to be paid with a bad check.
Payoff Pending: Jose Sales cleaned out hurricane-ravaged casinos for a month only to be paid with a bad check. Credit: Charles Steck

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After Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005, Jose Sales and dozens of other Maryland day laborers piled into a fleet of vans and headed to Mississippi and Louisiana, where they did a job nobody else wanted. For the promise of $10 an hour, Sales, a baby-faced teenager from Guatemala, worked long hours shoveling mud and debris out of Gulf Coast gambling casinos.

“The mud was up to our knees. We would slip and fall. We didn’t even have boots. I worked the whole time with my shoes filled with mud,” Sales recalls.

He cleaned the earth-caked roulette tables and removed the pungent fish, shrimp, crabs, and other sea creatures washed inside by the storm. He carted off moldy carpets and threw away food that had spoiled in the commercial refrigerators. And he allowed himself to be lowered on a harness into the ocean to retrieve plastic deck chairs and other furniture.

Hard, nasty work, for sure, but at least it was a paycheck. Or not: Upon returning to the D.C. suburbs after a month of work on the Gulf Coast, Sales tried to cash his check. It bounced. And his wasn’t the only one. About 100 immigrants who worked on the Katrina cleanup were only partially paid or not paid at all by their employer, MFC General Contractors Inc., the Mount Airy, Md.nbased firm owned and operated by Salvadoran immigrant Fredis Canales and his son, Michael.

On Wednesday, the second anniversary of Katrina, some of the workers finally saw their payday. Unlimited Restoration Inc. (URI), a Baltimore-based demolition company that had hired Canales to supply labor to its post-Katrina operation, shelled out $100,000 to the workers. The settlement stems from a federal lawsuit.

“Low-wage, immigrant workers, particularly those working in the day-labor economy, are incredibly vulnerable to these types of abuses,” says Jessica Salsbury, an attorney with CASA of Maryland, an advocacy group that took on the case for Sales and his co-workers. She called the ruling a victory for low-wage workers everywhere.

Each plaintiff received between $300 and $5,000, depending on how many hours they clocked and how much they had already been paid prior to the settlement. Sales gets $4,142.

The payout, approved by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake in federal court Aug. 8, will end URI’s involvement in the case. But the suit continues against Fredis and Michael Canales and MFC. It will probably go to trial to determine damages and whether the workers, who spent four hours a day commuting to the work site, and those who say they hung around for several days on the promise of more work are entitled to pay for those hours. Blake has already ruled that the workers are owed $47,585.60 in regular and overtime pay from MFC, which opens the door to an additional settlement for the workers.

A jury could award damages of up to three times the wages, or almost $150,000, according to Salsbury.

URI’s lawyer, R. Daniel Gartrell, says his client had already paid MFC for the labor costs but essentially opted to pay twice to end its involvement in the lawsuit.

“It’s my client’s stance that everyone should be paid,” says Gartrell, who disclosed URI is now suing MFC to recoup the lost labor costs.

MFC is telling a different story, however. Richard O’Connor, a Rockville attorney representing Fredis Canales and MFC, says the payment bottleneck started at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), prompting URI to delay payment to the Canaleses.

The holdup made it impossible for the Canaleses to cover their payroll, so they passed the delay on to their workers.

“Some of the workers were not paid because the money didn’t arrive from FEMA,” says O’Connor, who alleges that the majority of the workers were paid, among other disputes his client plans to address at trial. He says the bad publicity surrounding the case has driven the Canaleses out of the labor supply business.

“The workers have put them in a situation that they can’t get any jobs,” he says.

But Salsbury points out that both state and federal laws require employers to pay their workers at regular intervals. “That doesn’t excuse the Canaleses of paying the workers in a timely manner,” she says. “If they are going to engage in a subcontracting business, they need to have enough capital going into a project like that to cover the wages.”

Salsbury, who works out of CASA’s Silver Spring office, says she started hearing about the case in the fall of 2005. Hispanic immigrants, in small groups, started coming into her office and CASA’s outposts in Wheaton and Takoma Park with stories of toiling in the Katrina cleanup only to be stiffed on their wages.

“Eventually I put it together that they were all working for the same company,” says Salsbury, who filed the lawsuit in December 2005 with pro bono help from the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.

Sales and a half-dozen co-workers were the first to come to CASA, after trying unsuccessfully to cash the paychecks.

He began working for Canales in July 2005, recruited outside the Toys “R” Us parking lot at the Langley Park Plaza shopping mall. But Canales had only paid him sporadically. When he received a call from his homeland informing him that his sister Glenda had broken her clavicle in an auto accident, he started demanding his wages, desperate to send money to Guatemala to pay for medical treatment.

“They kept telling me to wait until next week and I’d be paid for sure,” he says.