In the summer of 2009, Vicente Martinez Ávila, originally of Puebla, Mexico, was hired for one of the most patriotic jobs his adopted country could offer: tending the grounds at the national cemetery in Cypress Hills in east Brooklyn.
Thousands of war dead, dating from the Civil War to Vietnam, are buried there, including two dozen Medal of Honor winners. They lie under row upon row of simple white headstones rising along a grassy slope topped by a monument.
Martinez’s job was to water the new turf being laid down by a California-based company that won a $1.6 million federal contract to re-sod this national landmark. He was glad to have the work. It paid well: $16 an hour. It was also just a few blocks’ walk from his home on Jamaica Avenue. The company asked him to arrive early, and that was fine with him. They also asked him to stay late. This was fine, too, because he knew that he was entitled to wages of time and a half for every extra hour worked.
“They asked me to work more and more hours,” Martinez said last week via a translator. “I would get there at 5 in the morning and be there until after 6 at night.” His watering was so important to the job that the company told him they needed him there on weekends and holidays as well. The grass didn’t care what day of the week it was. “It had to be watered,” he said. Again, this was all good. He was 60 years old, but he had family in Mexico and three children right here in New York to support. More hours meant more money, and what could be wrong with …