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Hired to clean GW dorms, workers fight company to recover wages

Media Credit: Cameron Lancaster | Contributing Photo Editor
Julia Hidalgo, 29, spent the summer cleaning residence halls at GW and claims that she is still owed $2,424 in wages and damages. She is one of 11 workers battling against a GW contractor, which they say withheld overdue wages.

A company contracted to clean GW residence halls for the past three years is battling former employees who claim they were not paid after weeks of doing work in Thurston Hall, Potomac Hall and Ivory Tower this summer.

Eleven workers claim BRAVO! Building Services fired them and then withheld more than $13,000 in wages after they cleaned residence hall rooms for about three weeks this May.

The company agreed to pay the workers their wages in July, but six employees refused to accept the payments because they didn’t include damages they are owed under D.C. law. Companies in D.C. must pay damages when wages are more than 10 days late.

All of the workers continue to fight for damages and claim the company owes them nearly $20,000 in unpaid wages and damages.

The former BRAVO! Building Services employees said their supervisor encouraged them to work as many hours as they wanted, each clocking in about 70 hours a week on average. But after the two-week pay period passed without a check, workers were told they were no longer needed and could not collect their wages from their supervisor.

Karen Martinez, president and CEO of BRAVO! Building Services, said in an email last week that the company plans to organize a public forum to hear from the workers. She said her company made “all efforts” to pay the workers based on the number of hours they claimed, which were “significantly higher than what our records show.”

Martinez called the workers’ protests a “ploy to make us look like we are a bad employer.”

Julia Hidalgo, a 29-year-old living in Silver Spring, Md., said the company’s staffer refused to pay her wages when she went to her supervisor’s office in Thurston Hall. Hidalgo added that the company’s Arlington office told her they had no records of their work.

She said she will continue to fight for her $2,424 in wages and damages, even if that means going to court.

“For me, it was hard, because I have to be paying for someone to take care of my daughter while I have to go [ask for my checks], not expecting anything, returning empty-handed,” Hidalgo said.

As workers’ back-and-forth with the company continued, daily expenses and rent due dates forced several former employees to turn to loans.

Juan Ambrocio, 44, said he took out a high-interest loan to cover unavoidable expenses like his rent and food. He said he’s had to find additional work to begin paying back the loans.

Still, he rejected the company’s late July offer to pay him wages without damages and continues to demand his $1,831 salary and the same amount in damages. He was already in debt when the company offered to pay workers just their wages and said the damage has already been done.

The workers are getting help from GW’s Progressive Student Union and a labor rights group called the D.C. Employment Justice Center, which is helping the workers pressure the facilities company and the University.

“This is happening on our campus, in our dorms, so every student should have a stake in this and be concerned,” senior Yasemin Ayarci said.

Members of the Progressive Student Union met with Senior Associate Vice President for Operations Alicia Knight last week to ask GW to investigate the issue. Senior Sam Nelson, a leader of the group, said Knight told the students that she would inform the University’s Office of General Counsel.

University spokesman Dave Andrews, who responded on behalf of Knight, said GW is aware of the dispute and “is committed to fair labor practices.” He has asked the company for more information.

Andrews said the University will “take appropriate action” if it finds any wrongdoing by the contracted company. He declined to say whether GW will continue to work with BRAVO! Building Services – which was hired by a University services contractor, Aramark.

Nicholas Woodfield, one of the chief lawyers at the Employment Law Group law firm, said an employer can only avoid paying damages if it can demonstrate that it had a valid reason for failing to pay employee salaries.

“It’s very hard to successfully assert a claim that you somehow, in good faith, didn’t pay them any money when they’re showing up everyday and working for you,” Woodfield said.

– Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.

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