Howard firm sued over treatment of immigrant workers on Gulf Coast



Saying their clients were duped by unscrupulous employers, an immigrant advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against a Howard County contracting company, saying it refused to pay 35 Maryland laborers hired for cleanup projects along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, contends that the Mount Airy firm MFC General Contractors Inc. refused to pay its workers the $10 an hour it promised them and offered no overtime pay.

The owners of the company denied the accusation yesterday, saying delays in worker payments resulted from problems with the firm that hired them to do the work.

The claims are similar to complaints filed around the country by advocacy groups and labor organizers, who say that firms doing post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction have taken advantage of immigrant workers.

The Maryland laborers were taken from Prince George's County to work in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi between Sept. 6 and Oct. 22, working between eight and 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the lawsuit states.

But weeks after their return, 13 of the laborers said they were not paid. The other 22 said they received checks for partial payment, but the checks bounced when they tried to cash them.

The lawsuit filed by the advocacy group CASA of Maryland alleges the workers were denied wages totaling nearly $100,000. The plaintiffs are seeking payment and damages totaling more than $200,000.

In addition to the claims in the lawsuit, workers said at a news conference yesterday that they took the jobs with the assurance of free housing and two meals a day. Instead, they said, they received just one meal a day, sometimes nothing more than a ham sandwich.

Steve Smitson, an attorney for CASA of Maryland, said laborers were also promised between six and eight months of labor, but the longest any of them was employed was 42 days.

"We are months behind in rent, are having our phones cut off and do not have money to buy food, much less to send home," said plaintiff Francisco Luna in a statement. "The situation has become desperate."

Miguel Canales, who owns MFC with his father, Fredis Canales, disputes the claims, blaming the delayed payment on the Pennsylvania contractor who employed MFC.

Canales said he gave laborers checks shortly after they returned from Mississippi, as an assurance that payment would soon come. He said he told them to wait a few weeks to cash the checks because he needed time to receive payment from his employer.

He accused CASA of Maryland of manipulating workers' worries.

"When I got the money, I called everybody, and I called the guys at CASA to let them know," he said. "But one of the workers got on the phone and said they were already going to sue."

Canales said he never offered overtime because he was not promised overtime for taking on the project.

Elsewhere, immigrant advocates have launched campaigns against Gulf Coast-based contractors who they say are recruiting and taking advantage of immigrant workers.

"There has been an explosion of abuses against Latino immigrants, both documented and undocumented," said Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Chandler said he has heard complaints about immigrants stranded by employers, going unpaid or being forced to clean up toxic materials without proper safety equipment.

One firm employed undocumented immigrants and, at the end of the job, called Immigration Customs Enforcement to report their illegal status, he said.

Canales said yesterday he has heard horror stories about immigrants being treated unfairly by employers, but he insists that his firm was not among them.

"I had these guys in trailers, I had trucks delivering them food, and that was hard to do just a couple weeks after the hurricane," he said.

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