When many were staying inside, working from home during the pandemic, others said they had no choice but to risk going to work.
Speaking with News4 and Telemundo 44, a Fairfax woman said, “Thank God I did not get coronavirus, but psychologically it affected me a lot.”
She worked on the frontlines as COVID-19 cases exploded last year, cleaning buildings and bathrooms in a major public building.
“It was fear,” she said. “It was fear.”
The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said through a translator she never imagined one of the hardest parts of the work would be actually getting paid.
"They always pay me late. I always speak for myself, but that happens to many of us like me," she said. “Outraged, because I have to pay my rent."
She’s just one of a growing number of local workers who have complained to the News4 I-Team about late pay or checks that bounced.
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"Wage theft still rampant around the area when workers need the money the most," said Raul Castro, a union leader in the D.C. area.
Castro said this kind of misconduct often targets immigrant communities in many different industries.
"Wage theft and the underground economy are a very large issue in the construction industry, as well as other industry like restaurants, hotel workers … Workers get pay either under the table, you know, they don't get paid for overtime," Castro said.
Another worker told the I-Team it has happened to him on a number of construction projects around the area.
"Most of the times there's problems. You get paid, um, cash money where they don't take any taxes out,” he said.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has gone after a number of companies for not providing the money employees are due under the law.
"We'll will receive on an average week, let's just call it 10 to 20 complaints,” said Racine.
His office has brought dozens of lawsuits against companies since 2017, leading to $5.9 million in penalties and restitution for workers.
"Employers who cheat, cheat all of us,” he said.
"Some of the largest general contractors in the city are, you know, defendants in these actions," said attorney Matt Handley, who has brought wage theft lawsuits.
But he said while most laws in the D.C. area allow holding the contractors responsible in these cases, he's not able to go after all parties tied to the actual work being done – the client or developer.
The I-Team found some of these wage theft accusations happening on high-profile projects, including at major public or private universities.
"A university that hires a contractor to build a new university building is not itself liable for the wage theft that might be going on at that project,” said Handley.
In one case, workers are suing a contractor for a dorm project at Georgetown University, alleging they worked 16-hour days and six-day work weeks, but didn’t get overtime pay.
A spokesperson for the school said in a written statement, “Georgetown University is committed to protecting the rights of workers and ensuring fair employment practices on our campuses. All contractors operating on our campus are required to abide by federal and local law. When concerns were raised about a subcontractor working on a construction project on our campus, we immediately contacted the third-party prime contractor for the project and encouraged it to investigate these claims and to review the employment practices of its subcontractors. The third-party prime contractor has since investigated the claim. Additionally, we continuously review our policies and contracts to ensure that any contractor or subcontractor working on Georgetown’s campus understands and follows our commitment to both the spirit and letter of the law in regard to labor practices.”
The I-Team also reached out to the named defendants in the case. One said in a written statement it “believes in a safe and equitable workplace for all workers on its projects. We cannot comment on pending litigation.”
In a second case, laborers are challenging the construction contractors hired to work at Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU said it's "not a party to the pending litigation and is not the owner of the project or the facility named in the suit." The university said it requires "general contractors and their subcontractors to follow all federal, state and local laws."
The subcontractor named in the suit told the I-Team it denied the allegations and “it acted properly in its contracting and payment practices. We look forward to defending our position in this matter.”
An attorney for the other named defendant declined comment.
The I-Team also found federal labor complaints involving work done on another college campus. The custodian who spoke to News4 about getting paid late is employed by a cleaning contractor at George Mason University.
"It's unacceptable for the largest public university in the state of Virginia to know about these circumstances and to be allowing them to go on," said Bethany Letiecq, a professor and member of GMU's Coalition for Worker Rights. "Not everybody has a voice, you know. We have, we should, all faculty, all staff at our universities, we should be leading on this."
George Mason told the I-Team it hired an auditor to investigate the accusations. While the results were inclusive, "the audit highlighted some practices ... inconsistent with our principles of operations and reporting."
The university president said, "George Mason University values everyone who works on our campuses, and we expect everyone to be treated fairly and with dignity."
A spokesperson also said, “We can confirm that we are not aware of any maleficence.”
GMU also said it’s reviewing their policies for contractors in the future. The contract with the supplier of those custodial services expired in July. News4 reached out to the company for comment but did not hear back.
"It has always been this way and it is time for them to stop," the custodial worker said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Jeff Piper and Steve Jones, and edited by Jeff Piper.