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LI immigrants fight to win wages they say they are owed

The immigrants came in one after another. One said he was owed $6,000. Another said he was docked $3,000. Three others said they were owed $1,900, $648 and $270.

In the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate headquarters in Riverhead, Sister Margaret Smyth and attorney Dan Rodgers counseled the men for upcoming court appearances.

"If they ask you about your immigration status, you have no obligation to answer," Rodgers said. "The only reason we're in court is to obtain wages for work you performed."

Advocates say many more immigrants are filing claims for unpaid wages on the East End than last year - nearly 140 so far, already exceeding the total for all of last year.

Five immigrants came to Smyth's office Thursday, saying a painting company owes them $5,000 each. "Every month, we have 30 or more cases," Smyth said. "Some of it's the economy. Some of it's just people being bad people."

Federal and state law says workers - regardless of immigration status - are entitled to be paid for work performed.

"The fact is that the worst thing you can do is steal a man's labor and that's what's going on more and more," said Rodgers, who does the cases pro bono.

Roberto Rodriguez, 46, said he was owed $648. He was so desperate, he pawned a gold chain for $200, he said. "I just want to be paid my just wage."

Nationally, some groups say they've seen a similar increase, though the Workplace Project in Hempstead said it has not noticed a rise in complaints.

"This is a big problem that existed but is being exacerbated by the bad economy," said Raj Nayak, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project in Manhattan.

Advocates say while most cases filed in local courts are won on paper - usually by default, when the defendant doesn't show up - the judgments are difficult to enforce.

When defendants do show, Rodgers tries to negotiate a settlement. But in many cases, only one or two payments will be made. "It's never-ending," Smyth said. "I have a whole pile of cases where they didn't pay."

Rodgers said so far this year, about $42,770 has been won through default judgments in East End town courts. Defendants have agreed to pay another $14,350 through settlements.

On a recent day in Riverhead Town Court, a contractor who did not want to be identified negotiated a settlement with Rodgers over four claims.

The contractor admitted he owed the workers money, but said it was less than they claimed. He said he was the middleman and couldn't pay the workers until he was paid.

Earlier that day in Southampton Town Court, Orbin Salazar, 23, sat in a room with paint company owner Don Schmitz and an arbitrator. After much back-and-forth, the two came to a $480 agreement, half of what Salazar claimed he was owed.

In an interview, Schmitz admitted he owed Salazar money, but said it was $230 and he docked Salazar that pay because Salazar had damaged equipment and been caught not working.

"Really, I should have fired him much earlier," Schmitz said.

Outside court, Salazar, who came to Riverhead from Guatemala, denied damaging the equipment and said he was not happy with the settlement. "I didn't get all the money," he said.

Salazar said with no work here, he needs the money so he can return home to Guatemala.

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