Construction workers who had been paid off the books discover they had been cheated — and were eligible for restitution.
In a rush to get home to the Bronx one afternoon in March and hoping to save a few dollars, Jose Lopez scanned the traffic near 116th Street for the livery cars that pick up riders and do not fuss with a meter. But no such luck.
He gave up, stuck out a hand, and a green cab pulled over.
A good thing he didn’t find another taxi: By the time Lopez got out on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, he had effectively scored about $200,000 for himself and three friends.
Earlier this month, he and the three other men — all immigrants who worked construction in largely untamed territories of New York City — were handed checks up to $50,000 by the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer.
A decade ago, they were ripped off by a contractor who had hired them to work on renovations of rundown apartment houses owned by the city. The city recovered the money, but the hunt for many of the workers ran into one blind alley after another.
Then Lopez got into that green cab on 116th Street.
The cabdriver glanced once in the mirror, then turned to face him.
“Hey Jose,” the driver, Mody Camara, said.
Camara and Lopez recalled that Lopez seemed uncertain.
“You don’t remember me?” Camara said. “You know me.”
“Oh yeah, yeah,” Lopez said. “We worked together.”
For several years, they had done interior demolition of city-owned apartment buildings in Harlem. They were paid about $60 a day by a contractor, Mascon Restoration.
“We were looking for you guys,” Camara said. “Those people were cheating us.”
Camara said he had successfully made a claim with the city, getting more than $40,000. “I bought a cab!” he told Lopez.
He insisted that if Lopez filed a claim, he, too, could get what was owed.
“And don’t go by yourself — bring the other guys,” Camara said. “What about Gordito? You hear from Chiquito?”
Noted in passing: Camara, an immigrant from Mauritania whose native tongue is a variant of Arabic, plus some French, was calling his Honduran workmates by their Spanish nicknames. You never know the things that may be going on inside cabs rolling through the Bronx.
By city law, Gordito, Chiquito and Lopez should have been paid salaries comparable to the “prevailing wages” that big builders pay on union jobs. Instead of the $60 a day they were getting from Mascon Restoration, for instance, the demolition workers should have been getting $45 an hour, according to the city comptroller’s office.
It turned out that virtually none of the construction workers were being paid the prevailing wages.
During the administration of the former comptroller, John C. Liu, the city calculated that the workers had been cheated out of about $1.1 million by Mascon and the companies that oversaw its work. Mascon pleaded guilty in state court to a related felony and went out of business. The companies made restitution to the city, which held the money on behalf of the workers. But those workers, who were being paid off the books, had scattered to the winds.
An investigator from the comptroller’s office, Frank Gonzalez, went to the job sites from 2006 to 2009 before the workers were sent scurrying by their boss.
“They told us we would be fired if we took the fliers that Frank left us,” Lopez said. They were also told, falsely, that Gonzalez was an immigration agent who was really there to deport them, said the workers and Gonzalez.
So only a few workers filed for the money they had coming to them, despite efforts by Gonzalez and others to find them.
Then Lopez got into the green cab driven by Camara.
The connections began. Lopez contacted Reynaldo Castillo. In turn, Castillo got in touch with Elio Barrios (Chiquito) and Martin Diorisia. Gonzalez of the comptroller’s office had taken pictures a decade ago and was able to verify that they had, indeed, worked on the Mascon jobs.
To much merriment, they picked up their checks. Diorisia, who now lives in North Carolina, had taken an overnight bus to New York City and gone directly to the municipal building. The others live in the Bronx, most still doing construction.
All of them marveled at the fortune that landed Lopez in Camara’s cab.
“He didn’t even charge me for the ride!” Lopez said.
In fact, the meter ran backward.