When Silvia Williams left her home in Puerto Rico to work on the new University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, she was tempted by the opportunity to earn money for her family. She had received multiple calls from Rimax Contractors, a Georgia-based labor agency, recruiting her for the work. But upon arrival, she noticed that some of her pay, and that of four other workers, was missing. The company was not making workers’ Social Security contributions or payroll tax deductions.
Wage theft and employee misclassification are common problems in the construction, restaurant and manufacturing industries, said Mazahir Salih, President of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, which is helping Williams recover her wages. Salih praised Williams courage for standing up for her rights and said workers often don’t know that they can fight back against wage theft, or are afraid to fight back for fear of losing their jobs.
“In the center, we have workshops about the protections that you have in your jobs and we have a flyer to hand out and explain to people, because some people just take the check and they don’t know what deductions are legal,” she said. “We are working to educate people about their rights. Before I started working here maybe I would not notice that kind of thing, but people should really understand their rights.”
When Williams brought her concerns to her manager, she was pulled off the job, Salih said. Officials with Rimax Contractors said they would be sending her to a new job in another state and she should stay put in the meantime, but her housing payments were cut off and she was left homeless.
Williams reached out to the Center for Worker Justice, which began investigating the situation. When letters to Rimax and to the company that originally hired Rimax to be the labor broker, Minuti Ogle, went unanswered, the center helped Williams file complaints with Iowa Workforce Development. The complaints include allegations that Williams was misclassified — fraudulently classified as an independent contractor rather than a Rimax employee, which allows employers to evade Social Security contributions, workers’ compensation and other employment laws. The center also argued that the company failed to provide check stubs (which are required by Iowa law and list things like the number of hours worked, amount earned and any deductions made), illegally made payroll deductions and retaliated against Williams when she brought up her concerns.
Salih said they have already heard back about the missing wages and expect that those will be taken care of. She said the company has also offered to compensate Williams, but the center has not yet met with the company to discuss details. She said they hoped the company would help Williams return home, if she wishes to do so.
“After they fired her, they cut her housing payment and she ended up homeless,” Salih said. “Now we demand for them to pay for that and help her get back to Puerto Rico; after that she can choose to stay if she wants to, but if they promise something they should give her what they promised.”
Part of the problem is a daisy-chaining string of management and contracting companies. When the Center for Worker Justice contacted the Capital Management Department, which manages the planning, design and building of construction projects at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, they were told that the department was not aware Rimax was a subcontractor. Capitol Management dealt with Merit Construction Company, their main contractor, and was aware of Minuti Ogle being a subcontractor, but not Rimax.
Salih said that they have discovered similar problems with Rimax in the past. In a center press release sent out last week, Royce Peterson, a representative with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union, said he worked with a group of carpenters earlier this year that had similar problems with both Rimax and Minuti Ogle: They were misclassified as independent contractors, underpaid and experienced retaliation when they stood up for their rights.
“This kind of thing is really happening in Iowa and we are looking forward to see if we can do something to hold the employers accountable,” Salih said. “If we could pass something legally to address these kinds of employers, maybe these practices would improve.”