By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Nineteen days later, though, the men returned to Dallas empty-handed. They say the contractor for construction company Hersh Inc. failed to pay a group of some 25 men (some were from Austin), for two weeks of work, leaving them stranded in Birmingham without food or supplies. The Mexican Consulate connected them with an attorney who last week filed a lawsuit in small claims court against Varela, the contractor.
"If someone hired them, even if it was a verbal agreement, it's enforceable," says Eduardo Rea, consulate spokesman. He says the consulate gets frequent complaints from immigrant workers who claim they've been stiffed by employers, but he called this one of the worst examples he's heard. "They were left in another state with no money, no food—it's a very vulnerable situation."
Several workers say that on March 4, Varela, a contractor, drove up to the labor center and told them about a large project in Alabama. Hersh Inc. would pay painters $14 an hour and demolition workers $10 an hour for four months to renovate more than 400 apartments, he told them. They would be paid on the 15th and the 30th of each month. The next day, 10 men set out for Birmingham in two separate cars.
They stayed in a couple of the vacant apartments in the complex they were renovating. Anastasio, a 31-year-old man from Mexico who didn't want to use his full name because of his legal status, says he trusted Varela because the man said he'd worked for American Tile, a large company with which Anastasio was familiar. He and others say they'd had trouble with small contractors failing to pay but never large construction companies such as Hersh. Company representatives didn't return calls for comment, and Varela didn't answer his phone.
The men worked nearly two weeks from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. On Thursday, March 15, Anastasio says, he asked Varela about payment. He was told a check would arrive via FedEx on Saturday. "So we kept working," Anastasio says in Spanish. "And then Saturday came, and Sunday and Monday, and after Monday he stopped answering his phone."
Varela had promised payment and then left. Then, on Tuesday, another supervisor, a man they say was named Eric, left too. Anastasio, as the organizer of the group, continued calling both men on their cell phones. When Varela finally called back, Anastasio put him on speakerphone so the other men could hear. "He said, 'I sent you the money, but Eric left with it, and I reported him. He's been arrested for robbery in Louisiana,'" Anastasio says. The men thought perhaps this was true, that they would soon get their money. So they worked through the end of the week.
Pedro Benitez, a 43-year-old legal resident from Mexico, began to suspect foul play a couple of days before the supervisors disappeared. At one point, Anastasio demanded money so they could buy food, but when Varela gave him a personal check for $2,000, he says, he couldn't cash it because it was a Texas check and he didn't have a valid ID. Anastasio bought the workers food with what little money he had, and when later he tried to cash the check back in Texas, there was no money in the account.
"When they kept saying they didn't have the money and Anastasio couldn't cash the check, I knew something was wrong," Benitez says. "Varela couldn't even look us in the eye."
After the supervisors left, the workers complained at the Hersh office in the apartment complex, but they say they were told to either continue working or leave. Benitez, who says that he was one of the only men with legal residency, claims one of the employees threatened to call immigration authorities if they didn't leave the office. The workers called the Mexican Consulate in Dallas and were referred to the one in Atlanta. Consulate personnel requested they fax statements, and they did.
The men gathered and tried to decide what to do next. Most of the group from Austin opted to stay and wait longer. "I said, all we can do is leave," says Benitez. "They're not going to pay us." The problem was, they had no money. Hersh employees at the office eventually gave them $70 each, they say, and they drove back to Dallas. In 18 years of doing various construction jobs, Benitez says, this had never before happened to him. "They owe me more than $4,000—that's a lot of money," he says.
When the men arrived home after a 12-hour drive, Anastasio and Benitez resolved to do something about what happened. Others chose to forget it and move on lest they lose more time without getting paid or, worse, call too much attention to themselves and get deported.