Raul Castillo Hernandez got an email from his former employer, Blackrock Masonry, on February 14. Valentine's Day.
The Wisconsin company was involved in construction of a new Menards location in Apple Valley. Castillo Hernandez said he was he was owed unpaid wages.
According to the email, obtained by Workday Minnesota and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Travis Hanauer of Blackrock Masonry and his colleagues had “no issue” sending Castillo Hernandez a check for $750. Well, maybe one issue.
“Since you were never entered into our payroll system, we have to treat you as an independent subcontractor.”
That was enough to disturb Castillo Hernandez. Union rep Kevin Pranis explained why at a recent Maplewood City Council meeting.
“[It’s] fraud,” he said. “It’s misclassification fraud, which they were asking him to commit.”
Castillo Hernandez told the union and Workday he’d had his doubts about this project from the beginning. Even in freezing January temperatures, he said there was no heated cover on the worksite – which isn’t good for workers or concrete.
Castillo Hernandez also told Workday his foreman hadn’t asked him to fill out forms, and had even offered to sell him some of his own – work papers, an ID card, and a Social Security number. Castillo Hernandez said he didn’t accept, that he was a citizen. But he’d had enough and now was asked to misrepresent himself to get paid.
In his reply, he told Hanauer he didn’t want to get into trouble with his taxes. He was “just a bricklayer," not a subcontractor with a business of his own. Castillo Hernadez wanted to be paid as an employee.
According to Pranis, that’s the last Castillo Hernadez heard from Blackrock, and he still hasn’t gotten paid. (Blackrock did not respond to interview requests.)
“This is not just any contractor,” Pranis said at the city council meeting. “This is a contractor Menards regularly uses and contracts with directly… so it’s an issue that we believe Menards can address.”
Nick Brenner, who spoke on behalf of Menards, told the city council members that this was the first he was hearing of these allegations. The general contractor, not Menards, Brenner said, was responsible for hiring and paying laborers.
“From what it sounds like, the general contractor may not have paid an employee or two,” Brenner said. “Now that we know about it, we can go ask the general contractor and figure out what’s going on… It’s something that we’ll look into, and make sure that people are getting paid.”
When City Pages reached out for comment, a spokesperson said Menards had been “unaware of these allegations” up until that moment, and that the company had “no relationship with Blackrock.”
“We contracted with Immel Construction to build the new store.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on Brenner’s remarks during the city council meeting – or the various Menards-related projects listed on Blackrock’s website, including the Apple Valley location -- and directed all further questions to Immel Construction.
Immel did not respond to City Pages' questions.
Pranis says the union’s communications with Menards have been about as enlightening. Despite bringing this up at council meetings and repeatedly contacting Brenner, he says, they’re no closer to getting Castillo Hernandez and other workers’ wages.
“Our most recent communication was yesterday (Tuesday), from workers who still had not been paid,” he says.
He’s not sure about Menards’ claims of never having worked with Blackrock. The workers, he says, had indicated this contract had been made directly with the masonry company, or that Menards had specified Blackrock as a subcontractor.
Regardless, this whole thing has been reported to the Department of Labor. Pranis hopes it will be cleared up as soon as possible. That’s cool comfort for workers waiting on getting paid -- especially now, when wages made outside the home are much harder to come by.
Castillo Hernandez, outside of this spot of bad luck, is pretty fortunate. He’s a seasoned worker and a citizen, and he can afford to walk away from a project and raise hell when he thinks he’s been mistreated.
“Raul’s not really afraid of anybody,” Pranis says.
But other construction workers, who may be undocumented and more vulnerable, might not be so lucky, and may not be able to wait on the justice system to churn out a verdict.
“If we were talking about a street crime or a drug crime," Pranis says, "We wouldn’t be shrugging and saying ‘oh, that’s a Department of Labor thing.’”