A lawsuit filed by construction workers who came to the Virgin Islands for jobs in disaster recovery after the 2017 hurricanes claims the men were lured into long hours of hard work for no pay, and abruptly fired and evicted from their housing.
The lawsuit was initially filed in V.I. Superior Court on Nov. 21 by St. Thomas attorney Peter Lynch of Flag Law VI, and was removed to U.S. District Court in February.
Plaintiffs in the case are Abiel Cotto, Benjamin Osorio, Luis Mattos, David Gautreaux, Jeremy Ramirez, Norberto Frese, Rafael Lugo, and David Lambert. The majority of the men are from Puerto Rico, and Cotto is Puerto Rican but lives in Pennsylvania. Gautreaux and Lambert are from Louisiana, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit names several defendants, including T.J. Sutton Enterprises and owner Thomas J. Sutton of North Carolina, AECOM, Citadel Recovery Services, Bluewater Construction, Inc. doing business as Bluewater Staffing Company, and Celestino White Sr., doing business as Celestino White Consulting & Management Firm.
The defendants have until May 13 to respond, but attorney Michael Sheesley filed a response on behalf of Bluewater Construction on Monday.
Bluewater was incorporated in February 2016 and has been doing business in the Virgin Islands ever since, and “has never had contact with TJ Sutten Enterprises, LLC, has never met, hired, or otherwise employed any of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, has never contracted with any of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit, and has never done business as ‘Bluewater Staffing Company,” according to Sheesley’s response.
According to the lawsuit, the men were victims of human trafficking, forced labor, and discrimination, and were made to repair roofs in “inhumane working conditions,” and were not provided water despite heat of 93 degrees or more.
Bluewater and Sutton “falsely promised” the men they’d be paid at least $2,200 per week, and hired the men to provide federally funded construction services on Jan. 14, 2019, as part of the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP program, according to the lawsuit.
Known locally as the Emergency Home Repair V.I. program, the STEP program was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide free home repairs to residents impacted by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The Sutton defendants often dropped the men off at work sites “without providing plaintiffs food or water or bathroom facilities,” and arranged for men to be housed in living quarters provided by White and other landlords, according to the complaint.
The workers were “exploited and mistreated,” forced to work “for 31 days straight without pay,” and have suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the ordeal, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also accuses defendants of a host of related offenses, including bank and mail fraud, and claims that defendants profited from their collective efforts, while the workers were left broke and homeless.
The workers were subjected to harassment and even “death threats” when they complained about their working conditions and lack of pay, according to the lawsuit, and were abruptly fired on March 2, 2019, and subsequently evicted.
“Defendant Celestino White is a former senator in the United States Virgin Islands who knows or should know that it is unlawful to engage in self-help evictions without a forcible entry and detainer action.”
“Each defendant either benefited from and/or knowingly recruited, transported, transferred, harbored, received, provided, obtained, isolated, maintained or enticed each plaintiff in furtherance of human trafficking of that plaintiff,” according to the lawsuit.
While some of the men were provided plane tickets home, others were left “destitute and homeless” and were forced to “abandon some or all of their tools of the trade because they were left without the wherewithal to ship them home,” according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary awards including travel reimbursement, reimbursement for the lost tools, wages, earnings, and overtime pay, and additional losses and damages the court may deem appropriate.
The lawsuit is one of a litany of similar claims by workers who say they were unpaid and mistreated after working on disaster recovery projects under the STEP program, which began shortly after the hurricanes in 2017 and ended in April 2019.
In June, the V.I. Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith assured a Senate committee that the new EnVIsion Tomorrow program, funded by an initial $60 million Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery grant from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, will avoid the pitfalls of the STEP program.
Unlike the STEP program, which required subcontractors to finish their work first before sending up invoices and being reimbursed by FEMA, HUD pays upfront.
Additionally, the Housing Finance Authority will no longer rely on a massive web of subcontractors, and Griffith said by eliminating these “middle men” companies, which were prevalent in the STEP program under prime contractors AECOM and APTIM, workers can expect to be paid in a timelier fashion.
As of June, Griffith said FEMA had paid out $343 million in STEP invoices and was reviewing $406 million in invoices.