Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. . . It’s just that, sometimes, justice requires a real struggle, and takes a long time to arrive. We are reminded of this as a long-standing case in the office finally comes to a close. This story begins in 2008.
The employer involved, Oscar Urrutia, operates a landscaping business, so his need for workers is seasonal, and he recruits additional workers during the spring and summer months on a temporary basis. He apparently engaged in a pattern, over many years, of hiring workers with promises of payment, but intentionally refusing to pay them at the end of the summer landscaping season. Instead, he’d shut off his phone and go to California on vacation.
We first came across Mr. Urrutia after Roberto Martinez Romero worked for 7 months for him in 2008. From approximately June 30, 2008, until August 25, 2008, Urrutia paid Martinez only $605.00 for the work he performed, approximately $1.20 per hour. Eventually, Martinez and another of the unpaid workers filed a lawsuit against Urrutia. Martinez and the other worker recovered a judgment against Urrutia, but the judgment could not be collected.
Selso Sarabia Lopez and Francisco Alvarado Fiscal both worked for Mr. Urrutia in 2010. Urrutia did not pay them either for regular or overtime hours. Through the summer, they tried to collect their wages by making phone calls and by visiting Urrutia at his home. In response, they were threatened by Urrutia, who told them that if they continued to ask him about getting paid, he would report them to the police. Eventually Urrutia told them to do whatever they wished, he was definitely not going to pay, that various workers had tried to take action to collect their wages, but no one could to do anything to him. Alvarado Fiscal and Sarabia Lopez filed a wage claim with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (“BOLI”). BOLI entered a Final Order of Determination in their favor for a total of $18,987.50 in wages and penalties. BOLI could not collect the judgment.
On September 24, 2012, Urrutia hired Luis Perez Carillo. Perez Carillo worked over eighty one (81) hours and was not paid for his labor. This includes over twenty two hours (22) of uncompensated overtime pay. He sought assistance with Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project in Portland. Voz sent letters to Urrutia asking for Perez’s unpaid wages. Defendant did not pay him for regular and overtime hours worked.
To escape liability for these and other debts, Urrutia filed for bankruptcy, but these workers contested his right to a discharge, since their debts were based on the employer’s fraud that he would pay them. In 2013, the bankruptcy court ruled in their favor after a full trial. (Understanding that they had won, the workers asked if that meant they would now finally be paid their money. Sadly, their victory just meant that they could keep looking for property they could seize to collect their debts.)
The somewhat happy end to the story is that this fall we found a truck that Urrutia owned and were able to have the sheriff levy against it. The workers were able to collect at least the wages they had earned, and a bit more in penalties at long last.
We congratulate these determined workers for their tenacity in pursuing justice and dignity for their work for all of these years!
Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Attorney, NWJP