A group funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is continuing a fight for 16 immigrant day laborers who say they have not been paid by a Clackamas painting contractor.
VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project says IBF Painting and its principal, Fabian Villalobos Dominguez, owe the workers about $18,000.
On Nov. 2, 2009, Villalobos Dominguez appeared at the corner of Southeast 6th and Ankeny and hired three workers for a project. He promised them, and eventally 13 other workers, wages ranging from $9 to $13 per hour based on their tasks and responsibilities.
The work went on for almost six weeks. But the laborers were never paid.
The workers sought the help of VOZ, which contacted Villalobos Dominguez. He offered excuses, but so far no money. He agreed to come to a meeting at VOZ, but did not show.
The case then went to court.
In February, dozens of protesters picketed his home and office, urging him to pay up.
Two weeks after the demonstration, Villalobos Dominguez filed for bankruptcy protection along with IBF Painting and BNI General Contractors. His attorney, Kirk Knutson of Salem, devised a plan for paying partial amounts to creditors, but Villalobos Dominguez again failed to come up with the money. In early July, the bankruptcy court dismissed the case and those owed money are again free to sue him.
VOZ says it will try to start a new dialogue with the contractor.
Villalobos Dominguez could not be reached for this story. His two businesses have no street addresses, only post office boxes.
The law firm where Knutson works would not discuss the case, saying it no longer represents Villalobos Dominguez.
Last year, VOZ received a $40,000 national grant and a $5,000 local grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for leadership training and operating expenses.
VOZ, a worker-led organization of day laborers, aims to give members more clout and skills to develop relationships with employers. Long housed at St. Francis Parish, VOZ in 2008 opened a day laborer site in Northeast Portland to protect workers and keep them off street corners.
The Villalobos Dominguez controversy illustrates the need for the site, organizers say. Day laborers are cheated out of pay about three times per week now, says Romeo Sosa, director of VOZ. The problem was worse before VOZ became the moderator, pairing workers and employers and checking the bona fides of companies.
Only three cases of unpaid wages have emerged from jobs set up through the site. But laborers picking up work elsewhere continue to get scammed.
"This is a thing we don't how to stop completely," Sosa says.
Many day workers are denied smaller amounts — $40, $60 or $80 — and decide it is not worth the trouble to try to collect the cash. The mobile population, Sosa explains, is not apt to stay in one place for several years, which is necessary to see through a labor case.
Day laborers are subject to other kinds of fraud. Sosa recalls the man who hired a handful of workers and asked them to help him rob a house. The workers refused.
Wage theft has increased during the recession and immigrant laborers are especially vulnerable.
Washington state passed a bill this spring imposing penalties on companies that repeatedly violate wage law. Other states have passed similar laws or are considering them.