Three farm workers have been awarded $120,000 in stolen wages, after a three-year legal battle against North Branford businessman Joe Spezzano. The workers received between $1.43 and $4.29 per hour, working 70 to 80 hours per week in Spezzano's dairy farm and rock quarry, and they lived in dangerous conditions in a dilapidated barn.
"We left our families and country looking for a better life," said Rafael Zamorra, one of the farm workers, "but we found a nightmare."
"Spezzano always carried a gun to intimidate us, and when we asked for our pay, he said that we should not complain to the police because the police were his friends."
"We were so isolated on the farm, we did not know where to turn for help. One day a taxi driver told us that we could get help from Unidad Latina en Accion and the New Haven Workers Association."
Unidad Latina en Acción is a grassroots group established in 2002 by immigrants in the greater New Haven area. In 2008 ULA founded the New Haven Workers Association to help unprotected workers facing wage theft, sexual harassment, injury and abuse at work.
A recent study by the National Employment Law Project found that 26% of US workers surveyed in low-wage industries were paid less than the minimum wage, and 76% worked more than 40 hours per week without being paid the required overtime.
On Aug. 22, the Workers Association held a press conference and protest outside of Christy's Irish Pub in New Haven, where Joel Matamoros is seeking more than $4,000 in unpaid overtime wages. They announced several recent victories for workers.
Ana Aranda earned $2 per hour at Mario's Furniture, now called Lisy's Furniture, on Ella Grasso Boulevard in New Haven. She quit after a month, sued the store with help from New Haven Workers Association, and has been awarded $4,000 and a public apology.
"The owner of Mario's made fun of us," says John Lugo, coordinator of the Workers Association. "He laughed at us and tore up our letters. Many business owners threaten us, but when we persist and we don't back down, we can win and stop wage theft."
The Workers Association also helped eight construction workers win a $40,000 settlement from Madison Beach Hotel, a luxury beachfront hotel that re-opened in May. "We did not ask for a handout," says Edgar Marin, who fought for several weeks of unpaid wages. "We only asked to be compensated for ten-hour days that we worked under the hot sun. It was our sacrifice, our money. The next time you go to a hotel or restaurant, be careful that they are not stealing from workers and impoverishing our whole community."
On Wednesday, Joel Matamoros and Samuel Lopez filed complaints with the Connecticut Department of Labor against two restaurants that have refused to pay them. Mr. Matamoros is seeking more than $4,000 in unpaid overtime wages from Christy's Irish Pub on Orange Street in New Haven. He says that he worked more than 70 hours per week, plus extra time for St. Patrick's day and special soccer games, but was not paid the overtime rate. Mr. Lopez is seeking nearly $4,900 in stolen wages from Chip's Restaurant on 321 Boston Post Road in Orange. He says that he worked at least 66 hours per week, but his boss only paid him for 55 hours each week. He claims that for 347 hours of his labor he received $0.