Md. Workers Receive Settlement for Back Wages

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Along with dozens of other Latino men in suburban Maryland, Jose Salas was recruited by a subcontractor to go to Mississippi and Louisiana to do arduous cleanup work after Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

Salas, 21, of Langley Park, and other workers said they were promised good living conditions, several months of work and wages of $10 an hour.

Instead, several of the men said, they were crammed into tiny apartments, received only a few weeks of work and were not paid for some or all of their labor.

The 46 men achieved what supporters said was a level of justice yesterday, when they received checks of varying amounts, totaling $100,000, from the settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit against the subcontractor and general contractor.

The settlement was announced at a news conference yesterday at the Largo office of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP. Lawyers with Casa de Maryland, a Silver Spring-based organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants, were joined by 10 of the workers, civil rights advocates and a private lawyer who is helping to represent the workers.

Casa lawyer Jessica Salsbury and Ellen D. Marcus, a lawyer with Zuckerman Spaeder in the District, filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court in Maryland on behalf of 46 workers. The suit named the general contractor, Unlimited Restoration Specialists of Baltimore, and the subcontractor that recruited the workers, MFC General Contractors of Mount Airy.

Although Unlimited Restoration did not deal with or shortchange the workers directly, Salsbury said, the company "stepped up" by agreeing to the settlement. The subcontractor is not part of the settlement, she said.

The workers' civil claims against MFC are to be litigated in a civil trial in November in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The men worked from Sept. 6 to about Oct. 23, 2005, according to the lawsuit.

Miguel Canales, an MFC official, declined to comment.

The men received settlement checks of varying amounts, depending on what they were owed, Salsbury said. Some received about $1,000; others were paid several thousand dollars for unpaid work, she said.

The lawyers said the men worked in grueling conditions, cleaning out destroyed casinos in unventilated buildings in hot weather.

In an interview conducted in Spanish, Salas, a Guatemalan immigrant, said that when he worked in Mississippi, he shared a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with six other workers. They were driven 90 minutes to two hours to the job and back, time for which they were not compensated, Salas said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company