A promise of work in exchange for payment is one of the oldest types of contracts in the world that, regardless of legal status, must be honored.
Two Latino workers claim that York Restoration Corporation, a construction company based in Long Island City, owes them back wages since 2008 for work performed on luxury high-rises in Manhattan. The undocumented workers, along with others seeking workers’ rights, have gathered twice on May 22 and on Friday, November 6 in front of the company’s building at 47-51 33rd Street to protest.
"At first I was paid on time, but after several weeks the employer started to pay me late," said Carlos Espinoza of Corona. Espinoza said he worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. "He always gave excuses and promised to pay us, but he did not. Weeks without pay turned into months without pay."
It turned out that when Espinoza sought help from the Corona office of Make the Road New York (MRNY), an organization that advocates for the rights of immigrants, another man, Luis Bustillo, also sought assistance at MRNY’s Brooklyn office.
"Each had their own local office and it turned out it was the same company," said workers’ right organizer Julissa Bisono. "I believe that there are more than 50 workers that York Restoration owed money to."
According to attorney Mercedes Cano, any work that has been done has to be paid, "whether it is a small or large contract."
"Otherwise it would be unjust enrichment and a breach of contract," said Cano.
Norman Eng, spokesperson for the New York Immigration Coalition confirmed that "all New Yorkers, including undocumented workers, are entitled to be paid for the work they perform. Wage-and-hour standards also cover all workers, regardless of status."
According to Bisono, the New York State Department of Labor (DOL) opened an investigation in March into the company’s unfair labor practices and York Restoration, incorporated in 1991 by George York of Great Neck, told DOL that they would pay.
"But they haven’t and that’s why we are here," she said.
The two workers, Espinoza and Bustillo, said they worked without pay for two months before quitting and have also not received overtime pay. Each said they have proof they worked for York though they got paid in cash.
York’s attorney, Brian Goldberg, said he repeatedly asked for such proof, but has never obtained anything.
"Show me something that indicates they worked for York, show me a pay stub!" he said. He added that wearing a "York Restoration Corporation" t-shirt is not sufficient evidence. "We give out hundreds of T-shirts all over the city for advertisement."
Goldberg called the protests aimed at York’s corporation "unfounded" because, as a general contractor, York has no employees on an hourly basis.
"If they worked for George York, they would have gotten paid. It’s simple," said Goldberg.
York considers this protest a "personal insult" to him.
"I am an honest man, and I have never fled from anyone," he said, noting that he does not know Bustillo and Espinoza. He said he tried to call MRNY on several occasions, but never got through to anyone.
"It seems to me that this organization [MRNY] organizes these protests just for the press, photos, and publicity," said York.
As for the DOL’s investigation into the company’s unfair labor practices, York and his attorney consider it closed.
Marie-Elena Fazio, DOL’s liaison in the division of labor standards in charge of investigating the complaint filed in March, spoke to York’s attorney Goldberg a few times in May, and told him that she would call back if there was an issue.
"She never called back," said Goldberg, "so I’m assuming there is no issue."
By press time, Fazio had not returned requests for comments on the current status of the investigation.