Workers who made face masks sue Chicago company for wage theft

Workers said Tuesday that one excuse their boss offered for not getting them their money was because lines at bank teller windows were too long.

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Elva Martínez Gonzalez speaks about her experience with her employer during a press conference at Arise Chicago offices at 1700 W Hubbard St in West Town announcing a lawsuit against an employer over nonpayment of wages to workers who made face masks during pandemic, Tuesday, June 7, 2022.

Elva Martínez Gonzalez talks about her experience making face masks early in the pandemic. Arise Chicago on Tuesday announced a lawsuit against an employer over nonpayment of wages to 15 workers.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A group of Hispanic workers hired to make face masks from their homes during the height of the pandemic has filed a wage-theft lawsuit against the heads of the Chicago company that employed them, claiming they are still owed money for thousands of hours of work.

Fifteen workers, mostly women ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, were hired in April 2020 to manufacture masks for $15 an hour while the country was facing lockdowns and shortages of personal protective equipment.

Things mostly went fine for the first few weeks with paychecks arriving regularly.

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But things devolved throughout the summer until, finally the workers decided to stop making masks in September 2020 because they hadn’t been paid for weeks, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court last week.

The suit is against John Joyce, Victor and Nicholas Santana and Ultio Crati Inc.

One worker, Patricia Sanchez, 44, of Oak Forest, said Tuesday that Victor Santana offered several excuses for delayed payments including ATM cash withdrawal limits and extremely long lines at bank teller windows.

“I was without money ... my hands with blisters,” Sanchez said of the work cutting fabric and elastic material. “I was sad and deceived,” she said, noting the emotional and economic fallout left her leaning on her sister for financial support.

“It’s not fair. We don’t want the same to happen to other people,” she said.

Victor Santana denied he or his son, Nicholas, were at fault and told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that he was simply acting as a go-between for Joyce in speaking to the workers on behalf of Joyce because Joyce doesn’t speak Spanish.

Victor Santana said that he runs a company that helps small businesses secure federal contracts. Victor Santana said Joyce, who owns a medical supply company, was a client and he helped Joyce land a deal to make masks.

Victor Santana said his son, Nicholas, who owns and operates Ultio Crati Inc., an apparel company, was hired by Joyce to do marketing for Joyce’s medical supply business, but that his son didn’t have a hand in the non-payment of any workers.

“Myself and my son didn’t have anything to do with the actual business side of it,”Victor Santana said. “John never even paid my son. This is on John. We’re not involved. Wrong place wrong time. And we’ll going to go to court to prove it.”

Victor Santana said that in his opinion it should be Joyce’s company named in the suit, not his son’s company.

John Joyce did not return a message seeking comment.

The workers were taken advantage of during desperate times during the pandemic, said Ada Sandoval, an attorney with Raise the Floor Alliance, a workers’ rights group.

The workers, who were provided sewing machines, made about 5,000 masks a week and turned in paper timesheets that recorded their 48-hour workweeks.

“We believed them. So we kept working because we needed the money,” saidElva Martinez Gonzalez, 50, of Posen.

Martinez Gonzalez, whose children are 24 and 15, worked as a bus driver but suddenly found herself out of work as students stayed home during the pandemic. She hoped making masks would provide financial stability.

“They didn’t fulfill their promises. So we decided to fight,” she said.

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