Cesar has been a carpenter for 15 years, working mainly in home construction. He grew up in Ecuador, where he wanted to become a high school teacher. “I love history and geography. But things change.”
In Minnesota, Cesar was working for a small company with a friend. He spent six months teaching his friend carpentry. The man eventually started his own construction company. Two years later, Cesar ran into his friend while he was buying supplies at a Home Depot. His friend asked Cesar to give him a hand on some jobs. “He put me to work building a home, new construction, 2,000 square feet, putting in the doors, windows, the frame of the house. I had to drive an hour and a half each way to the job—all told, I probably spent two work days just driving. It was at least 60 hours of work, and he promised me $1,500. He said he would send a check in two weeks. But after two weeks, he tells me he doesn’t have any money. Then he avoided my calls for four months. I knew him for two years, trained him. I trusted him.”
Cesar took his claim to “conciliation court.” “I was scared, shaking, being in a courtroom. I had to drive an hour to get there. But I needed my money for working.” His “friend” didn’t show up, so Cesar won a judgment. “After 10 minutes, the judge said, ‘Ok, he’s not here, you win.’ The judge gave him four weeks to pay. I said, ‘That’s good, but what am I going to do if he still doesn’t pay me?’” Sure enough, the court order did not result in Cesar getting his pay.
Cesar came into the worker center and spoke with Brian ___, a worker advocate. Brian called his former employer, who apologized and promised to pay. Brian wrote up a contract that stipulated that he would pay $300 per month until the debt was paid off, plus $100 in court costs, as they had agreed to on the phone. But Cesar’s former employer never signed the contract.
This was the second time that Cesar’s wages had been stolen. When he came to Minneapolis in 2001, he got hired to lay sheetrock. “These were 5 foot eight inch slabs of sheetrock. It took four guys just to lift it. But we finished the job in three hours. The boss was mad, because he said, ‘I’m paying you for eight hours.’” That time Cesar estimates he was owed $300-$500 in unpaid wages. Now he works for realtors, on a crew of 3-4 men, doing jobs for individual homeowners. “We get sent all over. We’re reading the maps, trying to find these places. If we don’t get to the location in time, we lose a day’s pay.” There is no workers compensation.
“Sometimes I feel like crying, but what can I do? We have $4,000 a month in bills. I call the cable company, ask if they can give me more time to pay the bill. My wife works, but we have three kids—a 16 year old girl and two boys, 15 and 12. We weren’t able to buy the kids a computer. Sometimes we can’t even buy them shoes. This is Minnesota, so the priority is to pay the gas company and keep heat in the winter, and buying food. But I love what I do. You have to do what you love—I learned that from the Greeks. You don’t have many accidents when you like the job.
“My youngest son wants to be a policeman, the 15 year old wants to be an architect. I tell him, ‘You design it, I’ll build it.’ My daughter wants to be a doctor. We try to survive, do the best for the kids. That’s the life.
“I’ve always been active in the community, since I was in 3rd grade in Ecuador, when I collected 10 cents a week to help kids go camping. When I lived in New York City in the 1990s I worked for immigration reform with an organization there. We went to Washington DC four times to talk with members of Congress. I got to meet Congressman Luis Gutierrez from Chicago.
“I had a friend who died in an immigration detention center in Ramsey County (Minnesota). She fell and wasn’t sent to the hospital for eight hours, never got the medication she needed. I organized around her case. I went to an immigration conference in Chicago.
“It’s great to have Workers Interfaith Network and the worker center. We learn about our rights, and stop being scared, because we know we’re not alone. Coming here is like coming to my family—a place to be safe.”