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PRESS CLIP: Wage Theft Scheme Tied to Brooklyn Address Where 2,000 LLCs are Registered – A Brooklyn LLC that boasts of its “non-union” labor is the subject of numerous wage theft complaints by immigrant workers.

June 6, 2022
By Maurizio Guerreo

When JLM Decorating hired Miguel Tapia to paint apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they told him he would receive $800 in cash per week for his work. Instead, Tapia, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was paid about half that amount. He complained to his supervisor, Josafath Arias, who said the company will pay him later. Wage theft happened “to everyone that worked there — easily some 100 workers,” Tapia told Documented.

Tapia decided to show up at the company’s principal address, 199 Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, with 15 of his co-workers, who also said they were owed wages. They did not find an office, but rather, a small storefront shipping business at the foot of a three-story brick building. “We were not allowed to come in,” Tapia said.

Most of Tapia’s co-workers remained silent for fear of reprisals given their immigration status, he said. He ended up filing a wage theft claim that has been unresolved at the state Department of Labor since 2019. An agency spokesperson declined to comment on an open investigation.

What Tapia and his co-workers may not have known at the time was that over 2,000 companies are also registered to 199 Lee Ave. The address is notorious among Brooklyn housing and labor advocates as a nexus of wage theft and neglectful landlords.

Also Read: Developers Evade Accountability for Construction Death at the City’s Most Expensive Apartment Development

“The moment I see that address in Brooklyn, I see what’s going on,” said Alex Garcia, a former Worker Rights Manager at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE). “You’re not going to get paid. This is wage theft.”

Many of the companies at the address are LLCs, limited liability corporations that were created so landlords could own apartment buildings and shield themselves from lawsuits. To sue a company in New York, it’s necessary to serve a legal notice directly to an individual at an address or post it on the business’ door, which is impossible in the case of 199 Lee Ave companies. Suite 215 alone hosts more than a hundred LLCs.

“I have to assume that 199 Lee Ave is a front for wage theft, but I can also imagine that there are other violations that they seek to evade liability for,” said Alice Davis, attorney of Catholic Migration Services (CMS), which provides attorneys to immigrants regardless of immigration status. CMS has dealt with five different cases of wage theft registered to 199 Lee Ave companies.

Most of the companies registered to the address are either real estate owners or construction contractors, industries where wage theft is rampant and endemic, according to immigrant rights advocates. Very few of them pay legal consequences.

“This is a front to protect LLCs from attorneys and other individuals who are trying to enforce the law,” Davis said.

At least 15 wage theft cases involving several workers had been associated with 199 Lee Ave, according to three different nonprofit organizations — Catholic Migration Services, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) and Make the Road New York. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

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JLM Decorating, for example, has been accused of wage theft in cases that potentially involve more than a hundred workers, according to court documents in the Southern District in New York, New York’s Department of Labor and nonprofits’ clients. None of these workers were unionized.

On its website, JLM boasts of its million dollar painting and coating contracts, “high-quality workmanship” and non-unionized workforce, which means lower prices for the real estate clients and more risks for workers.

“There is no difference [between union and nonunion work] except, who’s receiving the living wages, who’s receiving the safety and everything else on the jobs. Nonunion workers do the same work, except they’re not receiving the same living wages [as union workers],” according to a former nonunion worker who was quoted in a Center for Migration Studies report on construction workers released in May.

Advocates for immigrant workers said JLM cuts corners by recruiting non unionized workers. It also has won contracts with some of the most luxurious real estate projects in New York City, including the Aman Hotel & Residences on Fifth Avenue and the Mandarin Oriental on Columbus Circle where a suite costs up to $36,000 per night.

The real estate press occasionally reports on Moshe Gold, a landlord and developer who is the Chief Executive Officer of JLM. He has signed substantial deals, like the $23 million sale of two buildings in East Harlem and the $19.7 million purchase of an office building in New Jersey.

There have been no mentions in the press, however, of the numerous wage theft accusations against JLM Decorating, Cosmopolitan Interior Corporation, City Views Blinds, and Abalene Decorating — some of the 16 LLCs registered under Gold’s name, New York’s Department of State records show. There also has been no scrutiny of the costs in lost wages and injuries that Gold’s low-wage workers, most of them day laborers recruited on the streets, according to a complaint filed in a federal court in New York, are forced to pay to complete its swanky projects.

At least eight of Gold’s companies are registered at another front for unresponsive landlords — 63 Flushing Avenue, a two-story warehouse near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Companies registered to this address face at least five complaints of wage theft and construction workers’ injuries in federal and state courts.

Also Read: $38M NYCHA Renovation Led By Contractor Known For Dangerous Job Sites, Wage Theft

Gold’s companies have systematically stolen workers’ wages at least since 2016, according to claims in the Southern District and the Labor Department, as well as testimonies from laborers, advocates and attorneys. All the publicly known cases refer to affected workers from Latin America and the Caribbean, most of them undocumented, say advocates. This is consistent with the City’s construction workforce makeup: 63 percent of these workers are immigrants, of which 41 percent are undocumented.

Perhaps the clearest indication that Gold ran a well-oiled scheme to steal workers of their wages through JLM was suggested by one of the company’s own executives in a lawsuit filed in the Southern District in January 2020. Angelo Lopes, JLM’s vice president from 2015 to 2019, claimed that the company’s top managers — Moshe Gold, Joel Gold and Maritza Rodríguez — were engaged “in a scheme to avoid paying employment taxes and to avoid compliance with the relevant wage and hour laws.”

Lopes alleged that the defendants hired day laborers and paid them “off the books” in cash without providing them with a wage statement with the hourly and overtime pay rate, as required by state law. He complained that the workers, who were routinely recruited “off the streets” by a foreman, “weren’t even making the minimum wage for the hours they were working.”

JLM has stolen at least $46,050 from nine workers in claims already settled, according to state records obtained by Documented. Workers said that this is only a fraction of the money JLM has stolen from them.

Santiago Garzón, born in Colombia, said the company relies on a seemingly unending pipeline of immigrant laborers who eventually quit after being short-changed. Garzón worked as a painter for JLM for only a few days in 2019 and said he was owed close to $500. He was able to recover a fraction of his money after advocates at NICE, the workers’ rights organization, pressured the company for months.

Without an advocate’s support, Garzón would not have been able to recover his wages, he said. Most of Garzón’s co-workers lost their money, fearful of getting in trouble and ending up detained and deported, despite the fact that all workers, regardless of their immigrations status, are entitled to be paid according to the law.

A trail of cases

In April 2018, Byron Rosero filed a class-action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against JLM and Cosmopolitan Interior for failing to pay him overtime during his six years of employment. Rosero, hired to make deliveries, said he worked between 45 and 60 hours a week but was paid only for 40 hours weekly, court records show.

Gold and his companies “knowingly and willfully operated their business with a policy of not paying Plaintiff and other similarly situated employees” overtime, according to the lawsuit, which was settled in February 2019.

In April 2020, Israel Martínez filed a similar class-action lawsuit in the Southern District against JLM, with Gold and Arias as defendants. Martínez worked as a painter for “between fifty-two and seventy hours per week, and sometimes more,” for which he received overtime pay in “limited exceptions.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of at least forty workers in similar situations. The defendants sought to “maximize their profits while minimizing their labor costs and overhead,” the complaint stated.

JLM did not reply to multiple email requests for comment from Documented.

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NICE’s advocates have helped laborers in six other wage-theft cases involving JLM and Cosmopolitan Interior, spanning from 2018 to 2020. “Very likely other workers were affected but just didn’t come to NICE,” said Sara Feldman, the nonprofit’s deputy chief of staff. In the 2018 cases, Gilbane Building was the general contractor — a company that NICE has confronted in other wage-theft cases, Feldman said.

Along with JLM, Gilbane Building worked on the exclusive Aman Hotel & Residences project, where a worker died due to a safety violation for which no contractor has paid any legal or financial consequence, as Documented previously reported. Another prominent client of JLM is Tishman, the contractor with the most worker injuries in New York in 2020, according to city records.

Advocates often claim that construction companies that steal wages likely violate safety measures, as they maximize profits by “cutting corners” across the board. “It is the business model of these companies and not just unique instances,” Feldman said. “It’s clear that this is a systemic problem.”

Gold’s companies have also been sued for failing to keep records of their workers’ payments. In March 2019, District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades filed a lawsuit in the Southern District alleging that Cosmopolitan Interiors had failed to report the hours worked by its employees and to remit the union’s contributions. The union estimated the damages at almost $520,000.

A year later, Gold was sued for allegedly violating the contract with the New York City District Council of Carpenters through City View Blinds and Abalene Decorating. He failed to remit the required contributions, which amounted to $50,162, stated the complaint.

Without proof of payment, it’s harder to file wage-theft claims, labor attorneys have argued. Still, along with advocates, they continue to fight JLM and Gold’s other companies to recover the wages of immigrant laborers — “artisan painters,” JLM says, who take pride in their “detailed & high-quality work!”

CMS Recovers over $500,000 in unpaid wages for low-wage workers 

Photo of CMS attorney with clientsLast year, Catholic Migration Services’ employment program collected over $500,000.00 in unpaid wages for low-wage workers in the domestic, construction, restaurant and many other industries. This money was a lifeline to families coping with the economic fallout of the pandemic. This was especially true for immigrant workers who were not eligible for any state or federal pandemic aid.

CMS efforts included recovering unpaid wages for essential workers such as delivery workers, home health aides, and supermarket employees who continued to work throughout the pandemic. While these employees were publicly lauded for risking their health to deliver much-needed food, supplies and care to New Yorkers, they suffered exploitation and abuse from their employers. Delivery workers risked their lives traversing through NYC neighborhoods to deliver food to homebound New Yorkers. These workers were met on pay day with empty pockets and vague excuses from their employers. Domestic workers worked around the clock, often sheltering in place in the homes of their employers, and were paid meager, exploitative wages or fired for taking sick leave. One CMS client, a single mom with three young children, was unlawfully fired for taking sick leave to recover from COVID-19. With our advocates assistance, this mom was able to recover her lost wages and “the money went straight to pay back rent and buy groceries for my babies.”

One of our greatest victories was on behalf of Roberto Moran, Mauricia Aviles, and Yazmin Aviles, three low-wage workers at the Flushing restaurant, King of Empanada. These workers were paid less than the minimum wage and compelled to work over sixty hours per week without proper overtime pay. Managing Attorney Alice Davis and co-counsel Wilmer Hale, LLLC. filed a federal lawsuit on their behalf which resulted in a settlement of $40,000.00. Mauricia Aviles commented, “We are so thankful to have received these hard-earned wages now after a really hard year and a half. Our goal is to save this money in case of another emergency.”

Tenant Advocacy Program wins over $300,000 for Queens Tenants

Catholic Migration Services was retained by several tenants living in the same building to defend them against unwarranted eviction cases brought by their landlord. After a few years of fierce litigation, our tenant advocacy team settled the case on behalf of the tenants. The sizable settlement resulted in over $300,000.00 in benefits to the tenants including rent waivers and lump sum payouts. Although the tenants agreed to move out of the building in exchange for the financial benefits, each found alternative affordable housing before moving out. Two tenants were able to remain in their apartments for several months after the settled on move-out date to allow them to find affordable and safe homes.

Asylum Granted: Persecuted Haitian political candidate and family on path to citizenship 

Haitian flag wavingJean*, a candidate for local office in Haiti, fled his homeland after enduring persecution for his political views. After fleeing Haiti, he lived in Brazil for several years, where he met and married Marie*. The couple soon had a child. In Brazil, the family faced racism and xenophobia which forced them to flee again, this time to the United States.

When Jean and his family arrived at the U.S. border, they were separated. Jean was held in an immigration detention center for several months. He was later released on bond and reunited with his wife and child in New York City where they continued the next steps to safely seek asylum with the assistance of Catholic Migration Services.

CMS advocates helped the family gather and submit a thorough packet of evidence supporting their asylum applications. We then worked with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries’ office to fix a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administrative error. The correction allowed us to secure an appointment for the family to take their biometrics, a crucial step before asylum could be granted. Since this family’s case was repeatedly postponed by the immigration court, CMS persistently negotiated with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for their non-opposition to a grant of asylum and filed a motion asking the immigration judge to grant the case based on the paper evidence. The immigration judge granted asylum, and now the family is on a path to citizenship.

*We have changed the names of the clients to protect their privacy.

Fordham Law Student, Anthony Damelio Awarded Skadden Fellowship to work with Catholic Migration Services to Represent Low-Wage Immigrant Workers in New York City

Anthony Damelio, Skadden Fellow

Anthony Damelio, ’22

Catholic Migration Services is pleased to announce that Anthony Damelio, a student at Fordham University School of Law, has been selected as a 2022 Skadden Fellow to work with the Workplace Justice team beginning in the fall of 2022. A competitive program that selects 28 fellows each year to provide civil legal services to low-income clients, the Skadden Fellowship provides two years of funding to legal services organizations throughout the country to help launch the careers of public interest lawyers.

Anthony served as a 2020 summer legal intern with the Workplace Justice team. Prior to law school, he was Deputy Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), an immigrant worker center and close community partner of Catholic Migration Services. During law school, Anthony has served as a Stein Scholar for the Public Interest and interned at Kakalec Law PLLC, a small worker-side employment firm, and the Housing and Worker Protection Bureau of the Queens District Attorney. As a Skadden fellow, Anthony will work with NICE and the Coalition for Immigrant Families to implement the New York Health and Essential Rights Act (NY HERO Act) signed into law on May 5, 2021. The law mandates extensive new workplace health and safety protections in response to COVID-19. Aside from mandating clear COVID-related protections, the NY HERO Act also provides workers the right to form workplace safety committees, with strong protections and a private right of action if their employers retaliate.

“This is an outstanding achievement for Anthony and a well-deserved recognition of the work of Catholic Migration Service’s Workplace Justice Team. We are thrilled to have Anthony, a dedicated and experienced worker advocate, join our team. Through Anthony’s project, Catholic Migration Services will strengthen its relationship with local worker centers and harness the new protections under the NY HERO Act to protect and empower vulnerable workers,” said Magdalena Barbosa, Managing Attorney with the Workers’ Rights Program.

The 2022 Class of Skadden Fellows hail from 19 different law schools and will be partnering with legal service nonprofits across the country. The program provides two-year fellowships to talented young lawyers to pursue the practice of public interest law on a full-time basis and is currently working in public interest in 42 U.S. states

“I am deeply grateful to the leadership of Catholic Migration Services, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, and the Coalition for Immigrant Families for supporting this project that seeks to empower i“mmigrant workers to reclaim their new workplace rights,” said Anthony Damelio, Prospective Skadden Fellow Class of ’22 for Catholic Migration Services. “In deciding to fund this work, the leaders of the Skadden Foundation saw the impact of Catholic Migration’s powerful model of collaborative legal representation that works closely with community partners to advocate for low-wage workers who are exploited by their employers. I look forward to getting started with the incredible team at Catholic Migration Services!”

How New York City Must Support Low-Wage Essential Workers as They Support Everyone Else

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Thomas Power, senior staff attorney with the Workers Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services recently authored an op-ed with colleagues Sarah Leberstein from Make the Road New York and Katisha Andrew from TakeRoot Justice, on the need for more funding for employment legal services.

“For low-wage essential workers, obtaining private counsel is prohibitively expensive. Often, the worker’s damages from a case are less than the actual cost for a private attorney to bring the case forward.” Created in 2019, New York City’s Low-Wage Worker Initiative (LWWI) is the only dedicated city-funded program that provides free, individually-tailored, employment civil legal services and case management support to workers in New York City’s low-wage industries.