It took Hugo Barreno Rodriguez 25 days to migrate from his home outside of Guatemala City to Florida in early 2010. He mostly traveled by bus through Guatemala and Mexico, but made the dangerous journey on foot through the desert to cross into the United States. "It took me seven days to walk through the desert, but I made it," he recalls. It also cost him $4,500 to make the trip.
Once he arrived in Florida he thought his life was set, especially because he soon found a job at a local waste management company. But that, he says, is when his nightmare began--one that, according to Department of Labor documents obtained by Colorlines--included extortion and witness tampering, and ultimately ended in his deportation.
Barreno, who is now 23, almost immediately got a job in Ft. Pierce, Florida, at Waste Pro, a corporation with some 75 offices in eight states in the South. The company deploys thousands of trucks to homes and offices, and picks up trash from bins. The work is long and hard on drivers, but especially difficult for helpers who have to haul heavy bins--sometimes close to oncoming traffic.
In order to get the job as a truck helper at Waste Pro, the Labor Department documents say, Barreno had to pay a $1,000 fee to an employee named Dionis Calix. Barreno says he was instructed to use his brother's name, Juan Barreno, on his timecard, despite the fact that he wanted to use his own.
According to the Labor Department reports, Barreno was one of a dozen undocumented workers who had to pay fees just to begin work. The money was initially paid to Calix, who is a Honduran national, and then distributed in varying amounts between Calix, Ft. Pierce human services manager Mike Allen and another manager named Tom McMahon.
But the work initiation fee--which is illegal--wasn't the only way that Waste Pro was profiting off of undocumented workers. For years, the corporation ran different schemes to steal worker's wages. Barreno, for example, was made to work about 55 to 60 hours per week, but was never paid any overtime. In fact, the Labor Department's investigation indicates he was only paid $95 a day.
The documents also detail how Waste Pro workers were sometimes made to work two weeks on the job and two weeks off, and were also instructed to sign time cards for one another, cash the checks, and then surrender that money to Calix, who would then hand it over to Rosie Demelo, a Waste Pro human resources clerk. (Calix's, Allen's, McMahon's and Demelo's whereabouts are unknown to Colorlines.)
The Department of Labor documents indicate that this practice was changed and that workers were made to attend meetings every two weeks. They were required to pay Demelo between $50 to $100, which accounted for more than 10 percent of some workers' already meager salaries. Some workers were fired for taking a sick day and to come back to the job they would have to pay initiation fees again.
Reading through the Department of Labor's explanations of Waste Pro's criminal acts, it's clear that the Ft. Pierce's branch's exploitation of its employees wasn't the work of one bad apple, but instead a structural practice implemented and maintained by various managers and supervisors. Undocumented workers were berated and constantly threatened with deportation if they didn't pay the kickbacks demanded of them. But the abuse wasn't only economic and psychological.
Nearly a year after he first came on the job, Barreno was struck by flying debris. "I fell to the ground," remembers Barreno. "And I thought for sure that an ambulance was going to come for me."
An ambulance never came, however. Instead, he was left to suffer on the ground until a supervisor Barreno only knows as Mike--but not Mike Allen--arrived. "He offered me a bottle of water and asked me if I was alright, but all I could see in front of me was blood in front of my eyes."
As is indicated in Labor Department documents, instead of calling an ambulance or rushing him to a hospital, Mike took Barreno to Waste Pro's offices. He remembers that Demelo and McMahon spoke very seriously to him as Calix translated. He was instructed to go home and change out of his uniform before seeking medical assistance. Barreno says that as Demelo rubbed some kind of cream on his forehead and placed a bandage on it, Demelo made clear that he was not to tell any nurse or doctor that he worked for Waste Pro. If he did, he would be fired and turned over to immigration authorities.
According to Barreno, Mike then dropped him off at home.
Barreno says he changed out of his Waste Pro uniform and asked a friend to drive him to a hospital because the bleeding only grew worse. The massive gash on his head required 18 stitches. He says he told emergency room doctors that he fell off a roof while he was doing repairs at home. Hospital workers didn't believe him and called the police. He stuck to his story out of fear of losing his job and the new place he called home in Ft. Pierce. He says that he returned to work the next day to explain that he would need to rest. After being questioned by Waste Pro managers, he says he was told that he could take one day off--without pay--but that he would have to return one day later or lose his job.
Stories of serious and perhaps life-threatening injuries litter the Department of Labor documents. They also indicate that workers were never informed of their right to compensation under the law, and were instead warned not to report their on-the-job injuries.
The Labor Department's documents indicate a terrifying work environment, rife with threats and blackmail. The department hasn't yet made public its findings and officials would not speak to Colorlines, but letters sent to Barreno and several other workers, signed by the department's acting regional administrator, Thomas Markey, do indicate a widespread pattern of abuse. Waste Pro, however, doesn't appear to think there's any cause for alarm.
"It's my understanding that [the Labor Department's] only discrepancy is that we calculated overtime pay, but according to their rules we should have done it another way," says Ron Pecora, Waste Pro's marketing manager. "We're expecting something like a $4,000 fine."
Pecora says some of the managers at the Ft. Pierce office were fired but he would not provide their names. He claims he didn't know about the systematic abuse against undocumented workers.
Accusations of Fraud
Although undocumented workers were warned not to file workers' compensation claims, it turns out that Waste Pro's managers were filing fraudulent ones on their behalf, according to the Labor Department documents. But it took Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Labor Department a while to figure it out.
Waste Pro's Pecora says that it all started as the result of a routine insurance audit. "[Our insurance carrier] became aware that individuals had used false identification to gain jobs," he says. "When that was reported to us, we were required to report that to [ICE], and that's what we did."
After being contacted by Waste Pro, immigration authorities teamed up with local law enforcement and raided the workers on July 18, 2012--a day Barreno remembers vividly. He was called over by his bosses, only to find out that he was being arrested and would likely be deported.
"It's bad enough that they abuse you," says Barreno. "But to then make good on those threats and call the authorities when you've done and paid for everything they've asked? That's just too much."
Barreno says the Ft. Pierce branch managers who extorted him never called immigration authorities on him in particular although the Labor Department documents do suggest that they did so on other undocumented workers. The call for Barreno and 11 others, however, came from the Waste Pro corporate office.
But the effect was the same: Barreno toiled under excruciating conditions, was made to surrender large sums of his pay, and was constantly threatened because of his immigration status. He says he never provided false documentation or identification to his employers. Waste Pro's insurance carrier's investigation failed to recognize the rampant abuse and extortion committed against a large group of vulnerable employees--but it did erroneously suggest that they were committing fraud. It was because of Waste Pro that Barreno and his co-workers were turned over to immigration authorities, regardless.
Barreno spent the next 11 months trying to fight his case behind bars. The federal government accused him of workers' compensation fraud--which he says he never actually committed. He was deported on June 18, 2013.
Detention, Deportation and a Return
ICE processed 12 Waste Pro workers in its 2012 raid--and at least six have been deported so far. Barreno joined a group of eight others and hired a lawyer, but the group also had support on the inside.
As it turns out, an organizer from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, José Torres-Don, had infiltrated and was being held at the Broward Transitional Center, an immigration detention center in South Florida where the Waste Pro employees were also being held. Torres-Don connected with the workers and soon began feeding the information to fellow organizers in the group, which is commonly known as the NIYA.
Claudia Muñoz, one of several members of the NIYA who decided to take up the cases, began to put pressure on local lawmakers but she soon turned her attention to the Labor Department. It remains unclear how the department first became involved with the cases but Muñoz knew that she wanted it to investigate the illegal practices at the Ft. Pierce Waste Pro and secure the safety of the workers. She and two NIYA members staged a sit-in at the Department of Labor office in Houston.
"Nobody had ever done a protest there with the Department of Labor, and no one thinks to hold the department accountable," she says.
Their direct action ended with two NIYA members, Orlando Lara and Samantha Magdaleno, being briefly detained and ticketed before being let go. But the NIYA continued to call and write letters to the department. Muñoz says that companies are used to getting away with abusing workers because they think the Labor Department will dismiss the workers' allegations.
Barreno and six other workers had already been deported. But three more from his group were released following the NIYA's pressure on labor and immigration authorities. All nine are now processing their visa applications, which they're eligible to do because the Department of Labor has found that they were victimized and were the targets of extortion and witness tampering by Waste Pro.
Barreno has been back in Guatemala for nearly seven months. Citing new evidence, the Department of Labor has responded favorably to his request for a U visa certification, which is reserved for immigrants who have been victims of serious crime. Just two weeks ago, Barreno submitted his fingerprints, but he knows that the process can take a long time. Despite his ordeal, he wants to return to the United States. "I'm innocent of the fraud they've accused me of," he says. "It doesn't matter that I'm just a worker--there should be justice for someone like me."
Perhaps there will be.