For six weeks, Josue Lagos awoke at 4 a.m. six and sometimes seven days a week to pick up as many as a dozen fellow day laborers in a van and drive to a site in Bowie where they toiled in 10- to 12-hours shifts to build a four-story luxury condominium building.
Lagos and many of his fellow workers, all of them Latino immigrants, were paid the first week or two by Francisco Sandoval, the subcontractor who hired them. But as the weeks went by in June and July of 2003, Sandoval stopped paying them, always promising he would come through the following week, Lagos and other workers said in interviews.
With no income, Lagos and his wife, who was six months pregnant, were reduced to eating once a day, Lagos said. They were evicted from their Wheaton apartment and had to stay at a friend's home.
Lagos and several of his co-workers said they obtained a measure of justice yesterday when Sandoval pleaded guilty in Prince George's County Circuit Court to seven misdemeanor counts of failure to pay wages.
Prince George's prosecutors had originally charged Sandoval with 12 counts of felony theft, the first time a state prosecutor in Maryland has charged an employer with a felony for not paying day laborers, said Steve Smitson, an attorney with Casa of Maryland, a nonprofit immigrants' rights group based in Silver Spring.
Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the plea agreement ensures that the dozen workers Sandoval was originally charged with not paying will receive restitution.
Each year, Casa of Maryland investigates hundreds of reports by workers, many of them immigrants, who say they were not paid for their work. Some of the immigrants are undocumented and are vulnerable to exploitation by dishonest employers, Smitson said.
Through civil actions, the organization recovers about $250,000 annually for defrauded workers, and it has 400 civil cases pending on behalf of laborers and domestic workers who allege nonpayment of wages, Smitson said.
Ivey said he hopes Sandoval's guilty pleas will deter employers from cheating day laborers.
"This is really a historic day in Prince George's," Ivey said during a news conference. "If you hire people, you have to pay them. You can't rip them off. We'll prosecute you."
Smitson said he hopes the case sends a message that "the resurgence of Prince George's will not be built on the backs of workers who are cheated out of their wages."
Sandoval's attorney did not return a phone call.
According to Assistant State's Attorney Doyle L. Niemann, Sandoval shorted 12 workers of $39,390. A sizable chunk of the money was recovered after Casa of Maryland filed a civil action against the general contractor, Smitson said.
The general contractor settled the matter by agreeing to pay $22,000 to the workers, Smitson said. Sandoval still owes them more than $17,000, prosecutors said.
Ivey said prosecutors will attempt to reach a settlement with Sandoval regarding how much money he will pay the workers. A restitution hearing is scheduled for May 19.
Originally from Honduras, Lagos, 30, said he has been friends with Sandoval for eight years and had worked for him off and on without any problems until the Woodland Lake Condominiums job nearly two years ago.
Lagos and Arnold Osorio said they and the other laborers completed the building but were not paid for their last six weeks of work. They and 10 other workers decided to fight back, and they went to Casa of Maryland for help. Thirteen workers who had not been paid declined to join the group, Osorio said.
Smitson said he knew the workers had a good case when Lagos showed him detailed time sheets he had kept for each worker.
"People shouldn't be afraid to seek help," Lagos said. "It's possible to fight against people like" Sandoval.