Who’s the boss? Thompson Center employees aren’t sure who will pay their wages.

Updated: June 26.

Marica Sitka has been cleaning the James R. Thompson Center since before it opened. In her 27 years at the state-owned building, the only real change has been in who signed her paycheck. Recently, though, that’s become an important distinction, as she and 21 other janitorial employees have been embroiled in a two-year battle to receive their wages.

Instead of dealing directly with the employees, the State of Illinois contracts the janitorial services out to independent vendors. These middlemen keep on the same staff and pay wages with the money the state pays them.  But, as Sitka and her colleagues found out the hard way, the system grinds to a halt when the state hires a contractor who can’t afford to pay—a situation that raises questions as to the state’s procedure when hiring vendors and what its responsibilities to its employees should be when something goes wrong.

For Sitka, the problem goes back to November 2009, when the state hired FYI and Associates Maintenance, run by Fareeda and Joel Watson. The couple has a history of financial problems and filed for bankruptcy in 2008, but that didn’t stop Illinois’ Central Management Services from awarding them a four-year, $4 million contract. The company didn’t even have enough bankroll to pay monthly wages and relied on Amerisource Funding in Texas to front them the money.

The janitorial employees immediately started complaining that FYI was paying them late, and when they did get checks, they often bounced. The state terminated the contract in July 2010, and FYI never paid the last month’s wages. They also still owe benefits and vacation pay, as well as $7,500 to the union in fees they already collected from the employees.

“They hired this company, and the first check we got from them bounced,” Sitka said. “The state should look better into the people they hire.”

Central Management Services paid FYI the entire $678,784 it owed for the eight months of service, and as far as the state is concerned, the employees have to take it up with FYI and the Illinois Department of Labor.

“The Department terminated FYI and Associates' contract in July 2010 and informed the Illinois Department of Labor and the Illinois Attorney General's Office,” said Anjali Julka, a spokeswoman for Central Management Services. “The [labor department] is the state entity authorized to investigate wage payment violations for Illinois workers.”

The only problem is that the Watsons have disappeared.

The employees and their union, SEIU Local 1, have attempted to serve FYI’s executives multiples times and even hired a private investigator to look for them. All they found was a string of old addresses and a debt the Watsons owed to Shore Bank. The employees are now at a loss for what to do and are starting to wonder why the state isn’t taking responsibility for its contractors.

“The big problem is that no matter what we do, we can’t find these people,” said Steven Stewart, associate counsel for the union. “There’s not much we can do until we find some information about where they are.”

The 22 employees filed wage claims with the labor department’s Fair Labor Standards Division and found a sympathetic ear—but little help.

The division, headed by Suzanne Davis, took on the case and determined that FYI did indeed owe the employees wages. It couldn’t find the Watsons either, so all it could do was cart the case over to the courts.

The employees sued FYI in October 2010 for $91,243.53, covering the unpaid wages, vacation and benefits, as well as court costs, lawyer’s fees, and almost $400 in bounced check fees. Their union also claimed $7,500.20 for dues deducted from the employee’s paychecks by FYI that had never actually been handed over.

The court couldn’t find the Watsons, and the judge found in favor of the employees in April 2011. The question the employees are wondering now is who’s going to pay it?

Central Management Services confirmed that it performed its routine background checks on FYI, but its policy is to only check “persons who will be physically present on State premises” and anyone “who would directly supervise or physically perform any of the contract requirements.” This apparently was not enough to find the nearly $304,000 debt the Watsons had claimed the year before.

According to Stewart, that wasn’t the only way the state failed to look out for the interests of the employees in this case. FYI was supposed to file a performance bond, which covers damages sustained by them not performing as they should. That should have covered unpaid wages, but FYI never filed it.

“There was a requirement to post a bond,” Stewart said, “but the state never followed through to make sure it was posted. That’s not unusual. Often, they reward it and never look back until there’s a problem.”

Stewart thinks that the very fact that FYI had to contract with Amerisource should have been a hint that they weren’t capable of such a large contract. Amerisource fronted FYI with enough money to pay wages, and the state sent the $84,848 monthly payment straight to the Texas-based company. FYI sued Amerisource in October 2010, claiming it lost the state contract because of the financing company, but dropped the suit two months later.

“If we can avoid outsourcing jobs to private companies that would be preferable,” Steward said. “You’re always taking a chance when you’re outsourcing work that you’re not having someone responsible performing that work.”

Sitka and her 21 coworkers say they don’t really care who signs their paycheck; they just want to make sure they’re paid for an honest day’s work. It’s been two years since they started fighting for their money, and they’ve done everything they can, including sending a letter to the governor.

“We went to management. We went to our union. We went to a lawyer. But so far we haven’t got any money,” Sitka said. “We go to work every single day and don’t get paid. You get your bills but there’s no money to pay them with.”

--Yisrael Shapiro

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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