An ESL class in Danbury mirrors a national trend to help day laborers get paid.
Jose Chillogalli was hired last year by a chimney sweep company at $15 per hour.
The 32-year-old Ecuador native cleaned four or five chimneys per day for about three weeks. Working 70 hours each week, Chillogalli recalled, the company owned him about $3,200 at the end of his stint.
“[The company’s owner] paid me only $300,” Chillogalli said. “She said, ‘Please wait, I don’t have the money.’ “
He called until she stopped returning his calls. The next—and last—time the two spoke, Chillogalli recalled, she told him he didn’t have any papers and he wasn’t getting paid.
It’s a problem that affects day laborers throughout Connecticut and nationwide, experts say.
And it’s one that advocates for workers like Chillogalli are addressing in a new way in Danbury, through a so-called “How to Get Paid” class.
“I tell them to go slow, note the car and the license plate,” Elke Sweeney said as she handed out coffee at around 8 a.m.—panic time—on a recent morning to day laborers swarming the next truck arriving in Kennedy Park.
Sweeney works at a local community health center and she also teaches the “How to get paid” class.
Thousands of Nutmeg State workers likely need it.
For the state’s day laborers, Connecticut’s Wage Enforcement Division has enforcement agents that help people collect money they’re owed, and that includes all workers, whether or not they are working here legally.
According to the Connecticut Department of Labor, from July 2010 through Feb. 22, 2012, workers filed 6,186 wage complaints with the state.
“If someone hears they’re going to get arrested over this, it focuses their mind wonderfully,” said Blair Bertaccini, a wage enforcement agent who has worked on collecting unpaid wages and other lost wage for 24 years.
Bertaccini conducts works to help workers avoid being ripped off.
Nadine Nevins, managing attorney with Connecicut Legal Services in Bridgeport and the lawyer in charge of the Stamford Day Laborer Wage Clinic, said in testimony before the state legislature recently that her twice-monthly clinic serves 10 to 15 people each time it meets, workers who were not paid, were not paid overtime or were underpaid.
Nevins testified last month that laborers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft because they are generally less educated and more unfamiliar with the wage laws and their rights than other workers. The Stamford Day Laborer Wage Clinic has claimed more than $2 million in unpaid wages and overtime on behalf of low-wage Stamford workers in its four years of existence, she said.
Bertaccini has taught works in Stamford, and he urges workers to write down their hours, days and locations, when possible. Name the employer in a personal notebook and the company’s name.
“When the worker keeps a record and the employer is not, the worker is in a much better position,” Bertaccini said. Employers are required by law to keep such records.
And the problem goes well beyond Connecticut.
The Washington Post reported that half of day laborers have been underpaid or not paid for work in a 25-state study.
According to the University of California at Los Angeles, non-payment, underpayment and unpaid overtime costs the nation’s lowest wage earners more than 12 percent of their pay every year. The school’s 2010 study interviewed thousands of workers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
For undocumented immigrants, the UCLA study concluded: “Establish equal status for immigrants to ensure that they have the full protection and remedies available under U.S. employment and labor law. Although in theory unauthorized workers are already covered by most employment and labor laws, in practice their lack of legal status, their fear of deportation, and the willingness of employers to exploit their vulnerability make enforcement especially difficult for this part of the workforce.”
In Connecticut, Jose Leon said he ran into a problem in New Fairfield, where a homeowner, “Brian,” told him that an architect from Port Chester, NY, would pay him, but the architect told him Brian would pay him. Leon said he spent 32 hours on a masonry job, and that Brian’s wife hired Leon’s wife to clean her house for $15 per hour—neither one of them were ever paid.
“First he said he didn’t have the money, and then he said she didn’t clean good,” Leon told Patch.
For Chillogalli, Sweeney’s class sounds good, though the information arrived one year too late to collect on the chimney sweeping work.
“I didn’t do anything,” Chillogalli recalled.
Then, because of Sweeney’s class, Chillogalli learned the tip that he keep a small notebook in his pocket and write down the date, plus the names of his coworkers and any addresses where he worked. Write down the type of truck or car and its license plate number. Be discrete and pay attention to where you are. If a wage enforcement agent knocked on the door of a house where he cleaned a chimney, Chillogalli might have been paid.
“That’s a good idea,” Chillogalli said. If the state knew the addresses of the chimneys he cleaned, it has a place to start.
“It happens all the time to everybody,” Chillogalli said.