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Men Detail Ordeal of Working on STT Hurricane Recovery Program

An aerial view from October 2017 shows the damage to St. Thomas homes from hurricanes Irma and Maria in September that year. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

When he took a job in January 2019 that promised great pay repairing hurricane-damaged roofs on St. Thomas, Abiel Osorio Cotto could never have dreamed how badly it would end up.

Osorio Cotto said the experience left him destitute, and he had no choice but to move from his native Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania, “not to a really pleasing job because I’ve never worked in a chicken factory in my life. But I needed a job, and this is the way out,” he said in a recent interview.

“I remember a few times, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? How in the world am I here? Oh, I’m here because I didn’t get paid in St. Thomas,’” Osorio Cotto said. “I would never have come to Pennsylvania if I had gotten paid.”

Osorio Cotto is one of eight men who have filed a lawsuit in V.I. District Court over their work on the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power hurricane recovery program, also known as the Emergency Home Repair Program Virgin Islands, which was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and overseen by the V.I. Housing Finance Authority.

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The men allege in their lawsuit that they were hired on Jan. 14, 2019, by T.J. Sutton Enterprises and Bluewater Construction, doing business as Bluewater Staffing Company, to provide construction services as part of the recovery program on a promise of earning $2,200 weekly.

Instead, the men allege in their suit that they worked 31 days straight repairing roofs on St. Thomas in 93-plus degree heat, without food, bathroom facilities and sometimes water, and were never paid before they were abruptly fired on March 2, 2019, and forcibly evicted from accommodations arranged by their employers.

AECOM Caribe was the prime contractor on the STEP program, subcontracting with Citadel Recovery Services, which contracted with Sutton and Blue Water for staffing and labor, according to documents filed in the lawsuit.

For its part, Bluewater Construction, a St. Thomas company represented by attorney Michael Sheesley, has said it was wrongly included in the lawsuit. Documents Citadel filed in V.I. District Court on May 13 in answer to the suit show it contracted with Blue Water Staffing Company – with Blue Water spelled as two words, not one – of Delaware.

Chaos from the start
Osorio Cotto and two other plaintiffs the Source interviewed said the STEP program was chaotic and disorganized from the start, with eight to 11 men in a three-room house they said was provided by former V.I. Sen. Celestino A. White – an allegation he has denied in his answer as a defendant in the lawsuit and others staying up to six to a room at the Scott Hotel Bellavista in Estate Thomas.

Blue tarps dot the rooftops of St. Thomas homes in this aerial photo from October 2017, the month after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

“We stayed at Mr. White’s house. And that was the beginning of a nightmare. It actually began all the way from the airport” in Puerto Rico, with missing plane tickets and luggage fees not paid for as promised, Osorio Cotto said. He tried to reach the contractors to no avail, so he covered some of those expenses for other workers in the program, and has yet to be reimbursed, Osorio Cotto said. “It was a mess from the beginning. It was so disorganized.”

The men’s accounts jibe with that of contractor Jerry Baptiste of J. Anthony Staffing Company, whose recollection of the STEP program on St. Thomas is included in a motion for discovery filed in V.I. District Court on May 13 by the plaintiff’s attorney, Peter J. Lynch of Flag Law VI.

Other allegations include workers being packed into hotel rooms and not provided with food, per diem, pay, transportation or insurance. Baptiste said in his written account that the program cost him $26,000 in expenses that he has yet to recover and that his job ended without any compensation when one of his project managers, Gerald Toliver of Blue Water Staffing, took over his duties under a new company variously called ICS or ISC.

Irregularities with USVI hurricane recovery efforts also prompted investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

“From October of 2017 through January of 2019, the Wage and Hour Division concluded 17 investigations in the U.S. Virgin Islands that resulted in $1,313,763 in back wages found to be due to 262 employees of contractors working on recovery efforts,” Ted Fitzgerald of the department’s Office of Public Affairs said in an email. “The enforcement effort included investigations of AECOM and some of its subcontractors,” he said, providing a list of 11 cases, two of which remain open.

Long hours, no pay
Despite the initial setbacks, they went to work still hoping for the best, putting in nine-to-12-hour days repairing roofs, Osorio Cotto and fellow plaintiffs, Jeremy Santos Ramirez and Norberto Rivera Frese, said. They would get dropped off at worksites with no transportation, no food, little water and no bathroom facilities, so they had to relieve themselves in the bush, the men said.

The lack of transportation was especially troubling when two men on his crew got injured, and had no way to get to the hospital, said Santos Ramirez, who was a job foreman. Instead, they had to wait until the end of the workday to seek medical care, and also were left to pay the resulting bills, Santos Ramirez said. Baptiste recalled a similar event in his account.

Three weeks in, the men still had not been paid or received their per diems for living expenses, Santos Ramirez said. In all, there were more than 80 workers under its contract with Sutton and Blue Water, according to documents filed by Citadel in V.I. District Court.

“That’s when the concerning started,” said Santos Ramirez, who, like Rivera Frese and Osorio Cotto, is from Puerto Rico and whose first language is Spanish. As job foreman, he said, he contacted Sutton and Blue Water about the lack of pay.

“What is going on that we haven’t been paid yet?” Santos Ramirez said he asked them. “You guys have us working 12 hours a day and no pay, not even the per diem. We have the fridge that is empty,” he said.

The answer was that they would get paid when the houses they were working on were finished, Santos Ramirez, Rivera Frese and Osorio Cotto all said in separate interviews.

“They had to finish the house first to get paid, and when they were almost finished, they would move them. It was a strategy to never be done,” said Yaritza Rivera Frese, translating for her husband, Norberto, who does not speak English. Santos Ramirez and Osorio Cotto described the same scenario.

It was always the runaround, said Osorio Cotto, who kept a detailed journal of events. “Pretty much I got to understand these people were trying to create confusion. If you wanted to get paid, you have to finish the house,” but then the men would be moved to a different house before they could complete the one they were working on, he said.

For his part, Thomas J. Sutton of T.J. Sutton Enterprises has denied the allegations in the lawsuit and asked that it be dismissed in an answer filed by attorney Sheesley on May 10 in V.I. District Court. Citadel and AECOM have asked that the case go to forced arbitration in their court filings of May 13.

After worker protests erupted at Mandela Circle in Long Bay on Jan. 30, Santos Ramirez said a person named Mr. King came out with a blank piece of paper and asked for a list of names of who wanted to go home, and who wanted to stay and continue to work and get paid. “So, my crew signed the paper because we wanted to get paid,” Santos Ramirez said.

After about a month and a half, the men were paid some of their per diem – Santos Ramirez estimated about $770 – “just to keep us calm,” he said. “That’s why we survived for one more week.”

In his account, Baptiste wrote, “I have attached a list of all the workers that did not receive their per diem until after the protest took place on Jan. 30, 2019. After that protest, a number of workers were sent home without being paid for the work they have done.”

For those who remained, work meetings each morning brought assurances of pay, and “with that hope, we kept working,” said Santos Ramirez, who, like Osorio Cotto, kept detailed records of events. “Promises, promises, promises, every single meeting. But nothing happened.”

Finally, when they said they would not work until they were paid, they were fired and then forcibly evicted from their lodgings on March 3 by Sutton, still without pay and now homeless, Santos Ramirez said.

“It was getting to a point where it felt like it was going to get physical” on the morning of the eviction, Osorio Cotto said. “The pressure was there and what I was getting from them was that they wanted us to get physical,” so instead of waiting for the police, the workers took their belongings and left, he said.

‘A very harsh process’
What they had thought would be an opportunity to earn money to send back to their families in Puerto Rico, also still recovering from the 2017 hurricanes, had turned into exactly the opposite, said Santos Ramirez and Rivera Frese, who both are married with children. Instead, their families had to send money to them, and subsequently struggled to pay bills back home, they said.

“It was very bad,” said Yaritza Rivera Frese, a nurse who was caring for the couple’s two teenage daughters alone. The family had recently returned from New York, where they moved after the 2017 hurricanes and thought the St. Thomas job would help get them back on their feet, she said.

“What happened was the exact opposite,” Yaritza Rivera Frese said. “Instead of that, I have to send him money. He had to be taken care of. It’s not only that they exploited them physically, but mentally it’s hard to recover from. Not only it didn’t help us, it hurt us,” she said.

“It has been a very harsh process, not only for us as his family, but for him – being overworked and humiliated,” Yaritza Rivera Frese said. “I had to go and get help for my mind. My daughter had to get help for her mind. It was very harsh.”

This month, more than two years after the ordeal, the family finally had enough money to buy furniture, which they had been living without since moving back to Puerto Rico from New York, she said.

“Some guys, their wife left them – they got divorced because their wife didn’t believe what happened,” said Santos Ramirez, who returned home to his wife and son living without water or electricity because there was no money to pay the bills. “Others have gone to psychiatry due to the economic stress,” he said.

“Me, I got home and went to a friend who is a psychologist and consulted with him, and explained the stress and depression, and the bills I have on my shoulders and my wife and son with no light or water,” said Santos Ramirez, a contractor in Puerto Rico who said it took him eight months to get back to “some kind of normal.”

Osorio Cotto, who is single, had nobody to fall back on and also was trying to help his father, Benjamin Osorio, 70, who was a carpenter in the STEP program and a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“I don’t come from a wealthy family,” Osorio Cotto said. Living on St. Thomas without pay, he went through the money he had painstakingly saved from his job as a translator for the New York electric companies that were in Puerto Rico to repair the grid after Hurricane Maria. He took the St. Thomas job after that one ended, hoping to build on his wealth.

Instead, his savings decimated, he turned to the owner of the First Stop gas station near the Bellavista hotel, the only people he knew on St. Thomas outside of work. He had made friends with the owner’s son as they watched the evening domino games in the neighborhood. To earn some money, he had built them two new game tables for $200 apiece, Osorio Cotto said.

He called the family for help when he got evicted, and they picked up him, his father and another co-worker and encouraged him to file a report with the V.I. Labor Department, which he did, Osorio Cotto said.

Osorio Cotto said he spent the next three months living behind the gas station and working for the family to earn enough money to be able to return home.

“I was literally almost broke when I flew back from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico,” Osorio Cotto said. “I’ve always been the guy who is responsible and always had a plan,” he said. “It’s been really exhausting. I had a lot less than what I had when I flew over to St. Thomas.”

Desperate for work, he took the job at the chicken processing factory in Pennsylvania. “It gave a different direction to my life,” he said.

“Emotionally, I’m sane and I’m healthy, and I exercise, and I’m a really spiritual person, but it gets to you,” said Osorio Cotto, who these days finds some comfort watching true-crime TV shows like “48 Hours” and “Forensic Files.”

“The part that I like is the way they put all the pieces together – even if it’s been 20 years or 40 years. The suspect may be old and have kids, but it’s like, ‘Guess what, we got you,’” Osorio Cotto said. “It’s a universal language. It’s good versus evil. It’s going to come back at you seven times, brother. That’s the way the universe works. People think they are going to get away. You might not pay now, but eventually, you will.”

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