IOWA DERECHO 2020

Texas workers say they haven't been paid for Cedar Rapids construction work after derecho

Protest Monday seeks to hold employers accountable, get payment for nine workers from Houston

Community and union leaders join workers as they walk off their job site at Cottage Grove Place in Cedar Rapids on Monda
Community and union leaders join workers as they walk off their job site at Cottage Grove Place in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. The workers are employed by BluSky, a restoration contractor working on storm damage repair at the facility, and say they have not been paid in 21 days for their work. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Texas workers who came to Cedar Rapids to help with construction after the August derecho say they haven’t been paid by a contractor for nearly a month.

“These people have come here to help us to restore our town,” said John Greve, director of Grace Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids. When they don’t get paid for their work, “we cannot let that stand.”

Greve was one of 25 people who gathered Monday in front of Cottage Grove Place, an independent and assisted living complex in Cedar Rapids, to support the Houston crew that has been working for a contractor in repairing ceiling leaks, drywalling, installing insulation, painting and cleaning apartments since Oct. 16.

The group held signs and chanted “BluSky, pay your workers. Pay your workers now!”

They are referring to BluSky Restoration Contractors, a Colorado-based company overseeing construction at Cottage Grove. The workers allege they were hired by Pablo Ramirez, of Houston, but that he has paid them just $5,000 rather than the $35,000 they say they are owed.

A the complex Monday, Ramirez heard the group’s demand that he sit down with the workers and figure out how and when to pay them. He disputed their claims, saying he had a verbal agreement with one of the workers to pay them only when certain bench marks were met.

“He never completed that goal,” Ramirez said.

Michael Patterson, project director for BluSky, said Monday afternoon he was not aware of the protest or the situation. A Cottage Grove employee said complex management had no comment.

Robin Clark-Bennett, a board member for the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said it’s common for employers to deny knowledge in wage disputes like this.

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“This is a classic from the playbook in the epidemic of wage theft in our country and our state,” Clark-Bennett said. “Here are six workers who have worked 50 hours a week for a month, 1,000 miles from home doing essential storm repair work and they haven’t been paid for their work. When they ask for their money, all the employers claim they are not employers.”

When the workers, who would not provide their names because of fears of retribution in future construction jobs, walked off the job Monday, they were fired, told to gather their tools and vacate employer-provided housing, Clark-Bennett said. An Eastern Iowa church will help the men as they continue to pursue payment.

Iowa employees are protected by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the Iowa Wage Payment Collection Act, which requires an employer pay wages due on regular pay days.

Employers are able to withhold wages in only a few circumstances, including if there is a written agreement otherwise or if there are losses to an employer due to customer non-payment, according to a 2018 blog post by Ann Brown Legal, a Cedar Rapids law firm that specializes in employment law.

BluSky is one of two defendants named in a 2019 Minnesota federal lawsuit alleging wage theft and other illegal practices. In a court filing, BluSky denied the allegations.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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