High and Dry
A Weld County landscape firm that declared bankruptcy in April has continued to hire Spanish-speaking immigrants and to pay them with worthless checks, say former employees.
Applied Landscaping Solutions, which works extensively in Longmont and Broomfield, has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In addition, Boulder County recently filed suit against the firm, accusing it of bilking homeowners out of deposits for landscaping or sprinkler work that was never performed. The saddest stories, however, come from the people who worked for Applied Landscaping Solutions only to have their paychecks bounce. Many of them now face eviction from their apartments and are desperately scrambling to pay their bills.
"My situation happened in the last month," says Jose, who, like the other workers interviewed, asked that his last name not be used. "I went five weeks without being paid. They kept saying, 'Give us a few more weeks and we'll pay you.'" Now Jose is about to lose his home. "My landlady asked me to leave because I couldn't pay the rent. Now they're trying to kick me out."
Jose says more than a dozen other employees, who'd been promised $8 an hour, went unpaid in the last few months. "They didn't get the money and left," he adds. Most of the workers are from Mexico; some are here legally, others aren't. A number of the men send money to Mexico to support wives and children there.
Several employees say the company's owners offered to pay them with trees, but that doesn't help much when basic necessities are on the line. "I don't understand why he keeps hiring people," says Jose. "When is this going to stop?"
The firm is owned by William Haack and his son, Craig Haack. Court records in the bankruptcy case indicate that the two men have operated firms under several different names in the past decade, including 20th Century Landscaping and North American Landscaping. The records also show that the firm owes more than $700,000 to hundreds of creditors, including tree and flower wholesalers, trucking companies and heavy-equipment suppliers. Several of the largest debts are to collection agencies and check-cashing firms, and a handful of creditors are owed as much as $50,000 each.
Miguel, another former employee, says he worked for the Haacks for several weeks, trying to earn money to support his two children. "William Haack would give me a check from one bank and it would bounce, and then he'd give me a check from another bank and it would bounce," he says through an interpreter. "Haack is abusing people. This is wrong."
The Haacks' attorney, Paul Stuber, says employees who weren't paid before the bankruptcy can file for their back wages with the bankruptcy court. "The Haacks ran into severe financial difficulty," he says, and were unable to pay their bills. As for the employees who were hired after the bankruptcy, Stuber adds, "I don't know anything about that."
William Haack says his firm had to declare bankruptcy after a salesman took off with more than $100,000 collected from homeowners; he also says that several other employees stole equipment and helped ruin his company.
"We are still getting funds and straightening up matters we have no control over," he adds. "If there's an issue, it will be cleared up. We have no intention of cheating people out of their paychecks."
But Haack claims he hasn't done any significant hiring since the bankruptcy, refuting the allegations of workers like Jose and Miguel. He says the company is "cleaning up loose ends" with a few veteran employees but otherwise isn't hiring immigrant workers. "Our intentions are to take care of everybody that got hurt. We'll work it out with them."
Patricia Medige, an attorney with Colorado Legal Services who is representing Jose and the other unpaid workers, says the employees who worked for the Haacks in the ninety days preceding the bankruptcy will have legal priority in getting repaid. The others will have to join a long line of people owed money. "It's not guaranteed the workers will get anything," she says. Medige estimates the Haacks owe former employees a total of $5,000.
"This guy has been doing this for years," says Ronald Brambila, a local activist who has worked with Spanish-speaking immigrants in the area for the past decade. "It's a perennial problem." Brambila, who was involved in a Boulder immigrant-rights group, says immigrant workers have complained about the Haacks since 1990.
Both Medige and Brambila point out that Spanish-speaking employees are frequently exploited in Colorado. Last week, for instance, the Boulder County Health Department discovered eighteen men living in dangerous conditions at the Perdue Sandstone Quarry near Lyons. The workers -- most of whom were from Mexico -- were using two gullies as outdoor bathrooms and told officials they had gone without pay for months.
"There's a real perception that immigrant workers are disposable," Medige says.
Boulder County sued Applied Landscaping Solutions in a civil lawsuit on July 31, claiming the company bilked at least a dozen homeowners living in new subdivisions. The homeowners are out anywhere from $2,700 to $12,000, according to the Boulder County District Attorney's Office; a spokeswoman for that office said there are no plans to press criminal charges against the Haacks at this time.
Several of the company's former employees are wondering why the county was willing to sue over consumer fraud, but not for giving employees bad checks. "There can be 100 Mexicans with bad checks and they don't care, but if three or four homeowners get ripped off, they do something," says one. However, the DA's spokeswoman says the office is investigating the employees' allegations.
Bill Nagel, assistant district attorney for Boulder County, says that while the state's Consumer Protection Act allows the county to pursue legal action related to consumer fraud, it can't do the same for employees. "We don't have statutory authority to deal with labor issues," he says.
That authority rests with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and in most cases, "the labor-standards unit would try to collect on their behalf," says department spokesman Mike McArdle. "We can usually get it taken care of pretty quickly."
However, once a firm goes into bankruptcy, McArdle says employees have to file claims with the bankruptcy court and hope they will get reimbursed. The department has no authority to arrest employers or force them to pay anyone, but it can issue cease-and-desist orders against companies that routinely violate the law.
Medige says she'll do her best to collect what she can from the bankruptcy proceedings, but she fears most of her clients will never be paid for their labor.
"You have people here who are breadwinners for their families," she says, "and they say 'I can't pay the rent and have no money for food.' It's just heartbreaking."
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