Contractor Sentenced to 8 Years in Prison in Forced Labor Case

Originally published by: Construction DiveJuly 3, 2019

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A federal judge sentenced construction company owner Job Torres Hernandez to eight years and seven months in prison for harboring undocumented workers for commercial advantage or private financial gain and for forcing some of those individuals into providing labor on projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Torres, who was convicted in March, must also pay $919,738 in unpaid wages as restitution and must serve three years under supervised release after his prison term ends. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Torres case is worker testimony that, since 2015, he recruited undocumented individuals from Mexico with the promise of construction jobs only to make some work as long as 24 consecutive hours without pay. He locked them up after hours in squalid living spaces with makeshift beds and limited access to toilets and showers. If they complained, witnesses told the court, Torres threatened deportation and physical harm to them and their families in Mexico. 

Torres supplied some of this labor to the Silvery Towers condo project in San Jose, California, and, last year, developer Full Power Properties paid $250,000 in back wages to 22 of Torres’ employees. After the settlement, Full Power told Constructive Dive that it denied any wrongdoing and that it, as well as the general contractor on the project, has since altered its due diligence procedures for the selection of subcontractors to avoid future issues.

Protection for workers

Because of the Torres case, San Jose lawmakers passed a new law aimed at protecting workers late last month, the San Jose Spotlight reported. After negotiating with local trade unions and considering arguments from the business community about added costs for the development of new housing, San Jose now requires private construction companies to pay a prevailing wage on all projects that receive city subsidies.

On some construction projects, laborers get lost in the shuffle as the companies they work for try to save money. One of the ways some contractors try to reduce costs is by classifying their workers as independent contractors so that they don't have to provide employee benefits like workers' compensation insurance coverage or pay payroll taxes on their behalf. Some states like California, however, are considering new legislation to prevent that from happening. 

In May, the California Assembly approved a measure that would force employers, including those in the construction industry, to use a stricter, three-part test known as ABC to determine which workers qualify as independent contractors. The assembly provided exemptions in the bill for some professions like architects and engineers, and the senate, which is reviewing the measure now, could add more. ​