A contractor who hired workers for Sandy cleanup and demolition at four retail stores, including one in Nassau County, has agreed to pay back wages and other promised allowances totaling $65,000 to more than 100 people after an investigation by a nonprofit law firm and the New York attorney general's office.
InStar Services Group LP failed to pay workers their promised wages and overtime, according to a ruling by the attorney general's labor bureau.
After Sandy, it hired subcontractors to supply workers. One, Tennessee-based LA Construction, hired about 150 people to perform duties such as cleaning, demolition and removal of damaged inventory at a Michaels store in Queens, two Staples stores -- one in Lawrence and one on Staten Island -- and a Fairway Supermarket in Brooklyn.
Doris Rivera, 45, a mother of five from upstate Rochester, was one such worker. She said a recruiter told her and about 20 others from Rochester they would be paid $14 an hour, be put up in a hotel room and given a $25 allowance a week for food.
"He told us: 'You're going for four months,' " she said, adding the choice to take the job was tough but she did it "because I needed the money."
Once downstate, the story changed, Rivera said. She worked three 10- to 12-hour days and survived on food from the Red Cross. She spent one night in a hotel room -- with eight others. "We slept four nights in our car -- five of us in cold weather -- other people had six in a car. "
Other workers she spoke with had traveled from Miami, Louisiana, Atlanta, Chicago, Albany and Syracuse.
At one point she was directed to the Staples store in Nassau, she said. "They told us, 'It's a complete disaster, you have to clean up, wash floors and walls,' that sort of thing." When they arrived on site, however, the company had hired others to work for $10 an hour, she said.
Rivera said she was never paid. Workers were told they would be reimbursed for tolls and gas, but that, too, never materialized, she said. Rivera and others documented what they saw with pictures and provided those to the Empire Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, which investigated and alerted the attorney general's office.
The attorney general's office found there was sufficient evidence to conclude InStar violated New York State labor law, executive law, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other state codes and regulations. While the company neither admitted nor denied the findings, it agreed to pay $65,000 in back wages and the additional money it had promised workers.
Headquartered in Michigan, InStar provided disaster response to commercial clients nationwide until December, when it was sold. A representative and the company's attorney could not be reached Thursday.
Reyna Ramolete Hayashi, with the Empire Justice Center, said disasters such as Sandy are ripe for wage theft. "I admire these workers for giving voice to so many who are driven into the underground economies that power our cities, that most of us take for granted, especially in times of crisis," she said.