OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — The owner of a construction company in Hayward accused of preying on undocumented workers who say they were locked away at night for months has repeatedly faced charges of cheating immigrant laborers.
When federal Homeland Security agents raided the Hayward construction company on Dunn Street last August, they were acting on a tip that undocumented workers were confined in a warehouse as part of an elaborate forced labor scheme.READ MORE: UPDATE: Air Attack, Calming Winds Aid Firefighters Battling Wildfire Near Big Sur; Containment Grows To 25 Percent
Upstairs in a hidden loft behind a wall, agents found a filthy, crowded living space with wood bunks and no running water. And because the loft door locked from the outside, agents believe workers were being held against their will.
It was all allegedly operated by the owner of the company, Job Torres Hernandez, who also known as Joe Torres. He has a long history of cheating immigrant workers and, according to those workers, threatening them if they complained.
One of his former employees, Juan Manuel Tavera Navarez, told a federal judge at Torres’ bond hearing that Torres “mentioned that he knew cartel people.” Workers said they understood that meant their families could be harmed or even killed.
Torres allegedly recruited workers from Mexico and took family contact information in case of emergency, so he knew where they lived. His former employee explained his understanding of the threat to the federal judge at Torres’ bond hearing.
“You watch the news, you know how cartel people operate. They take everyone. Kids. They go down to the dog,” Navarez said.
Federal agents freed at least seven workers from the warehouse and more workers from a garage, afterwards driving them in vans to a nearby Red Cross shelter.
Torres’ attorney Jesse Garcia denied the charges.
“Forcing them to work? Locking them in a building they couldn’t get out of? That’s just pure nonsense. I don’t know where that information comes from,” Garcia said.
Why didn’t he pay the laborers? Torres refused to answer KPIX questions outside the Federal courthouse in Oakland, where he was indicted on charges that he harbored undocumented workers for commercial advantage.READ MORE: PG&E Still Restoring Power to Over 2,000 Customers in East Bay
Court records accusing Torres of wage theft go back at least eight years. Labor attorney Derek Schoonmaker investigated Torres after five workers came in to Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza to complain that Torres paid them with bad checks.
“It appeared to be his business model: to hire day laborers to work on a project and then to not pay,” said Schoonmaker. “This was a particularly troubling case, because we saw it happen with a group of workers that came in to us and then heard about it happening to other works who hadn’t reached Centro Legal.”
The cases went to the California Labor Commissioner, who found that Torres owes 38 workers almost $600,000 in back wages and penalties.
“Mr. Torres had shorted these workers of minimum wage, overtime — their checks bounced — and numerous other violations.” said Senior Deputy Commissioner Daniel Yu.
Yu stressed that the Labor Commissioner investigates reports of wage theft from any worker and does not inquire about immigration status.
The Commissioner put liens on Torres’ property and is trying to make him pay restitution, but he was allowed to stay in business.
Last year, one of Torres’ companies worked as a subcontractor on several major projects in the Bay Area, including the renovation of the Union Square Courtyard Marriott Hotel in San Francisco. Workers at that hotel say Torres shorted them last year and in 2015. The hotel is also where workers first told authorities that Torres confined them in his warehouse, which led to his arrest in Hayward.
KPIX asked Mr. Torres why he kept the workers confined. The only response Torres made to multiple questions was a brief statement: “Stop harassing me.”
Torrres is free while his federal case is pending. He also is out while awaiting a trial in Alameda Superior Court on criminal charges of wage theft. Those charges were filed in December 2015, with no trial date set after two years of preliminary hearings.
His former employee gave the federal court a warning at Torres bond hearing.MORE NEWS: San Francisco Bay Area Tops Average Gas Price Per Gallon in the U.S.
“He’s going to return to doing the same. To American people as well as immigrants,” Juan Manuel Tavera Navarez told the judge. “It’s going to endanger American people and society as well.”