Benito and Carlos are roofers who came to the Madison Workers’ Rights Center after receiving a flyer that said they could get help if their wages were stolen. Benito looks to be in his mid 30’s, Carlos somewhat older. “I’ve worked as a roofer for three years, and love the work,” said Benito, the more talkative of the two. They are hired by the job, not as regular employees, and if these workers were injured their boss insinuated that they would be replaced and would not be covered by workers compensation. “Sometimes workers would get hurt, get cut when they were cleaning up. When you love your work and take pride, you are less likely to get hurt on the job, I think. The money is good, if you get paid.”
Both men worked for the same contractor, “Specialty Roofing,” a small company that did both commercial and residential jobs, and each was owed back wages covering approximately three months of unpaid work. Both Carlos and Benito are married and each has four children. “We left our families and our culture in Mexico so that we could do better, to help our families. We thought things would be easier,” said Benito.
Carlos worked for a year for Specialty. For the first three months, there was a regular schedule, and the workers were paid by check. They were not paid on an hourly basis, but on a piece rate–$50 per square foot laid. The faster you worked, the more you could earn, in theory. After the first three months, the checks began to bounce, and then Carlos was paid cash—sometimes. Benito said they were owed at least $5,900 each for three houses. “The boss would say, “Could you help me out? I’ll pay you in two weeks, when I get some cash for the job,” said Benito. “We worked seven days straight and did 80 square feet, so they owed $4,000. He knows we are out of work, knows that he can take advantage of immigrant workers. I tell him the more I ‘help you,’ the more you screw me over.”
This particular boss, who they think is named Henry Ruiz—he has changed his name to stay a step ahead of the law—always promises to pay, and always comes up with excuses. Wisconsin state law allows workers to collect double damages if an investigator determines in favor of a worker. Benito told him he was going to file a wage claim with the Wisconsin State Department of Labor (Department of Workforce Development). The boss just laughed. “I get these citations all the time. I just throw them in the trash.” He told the worker that he would simply say that workers gave him bad social security numbers, or that they never worked for him, or that he doesn’t know them.
“Sometimes he goes to the bar and gets drunk, cancels work for the day,” said Benito. “He plays the big shot, orders drinks for everyone. He can even afford to hire a lawyer to deal with all these wage claims, but can’t pay his workers.”
Once Carlos, Benito and two other co-workers went to the office to ask for their money, but the boss wouldn’t open the door and locked himself in. “He was hiding in the office. Then he called the police, told the cops that we were trying to rob him,” said Benito. “’We’re not robbers’, we told the police—‘He owes me $5,000. We just came to collect our pay.’”
In the meantime, Carlos felt a sharp pain and went to a free clinic, and was sent to the hospital to have his appendix removed. With no health insurance, the operation left him with a bill for $22,000. He rents a room in a house, and is behind in his rent. Benito struggles to keep up with his rent and utility bills. They have talked with co-workers, and have come to the Madison Workers’ Rights Center because they want to stop others from becoming wage theft victims. “We want our kids to have better lives than we do,” said Carlos. “But right now we cannot do enough for them.”