the fighting day laborer

Los Angeles, California

I wrote this story in 1990, when the day laborer phenomenom was relatively new in Southern California. It has since spread across the United States.

Immigrant Day Laborer Fights for His Paycheck



Every day in Southern California, thousands of immigrant day laborers find work on street corners toiling for builders, gardeners and other contractors. Many of the workers, at one time or another, have been cheated by an unscrupulous employer.


Almost always, the laborers keep silent. They are reluctant to seek justice in a country they feel isn't theirs. Painfully, they write off their losses and return to the street corners the next day to try again.


Fidel Chicas, a 65-year-old grandfather and jack-of-all-trades, is an exception. He has decided to show his fellow workers how to fight back. For two years, he has sought justice through the courts and through a persistent stakeout of the offices of a man he says owes him $1,006.44 in back pay and court fees.


Despite his broken English, Chicas, a humble man from a provincial town in eastern El Salvador, managed to represent himself in court without an attorney. He won his case. For his efforts, he has accumulated a stack of dogeared legal documents, including a decision in his favor, but not the money awarded to him by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last August.


Chicas says that his former boss, Gary Mamian, a hotelier and developer, simply refuses to pay.


"You have to admire Fidel for his persistence," said Linda Mitchell of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "He's trying to follow the system; he's trying to be an American. But the employer just sits back and waits for him to go away."


The dispute goes back to February, 1988, when Mamian promised to pay Chicas $10 an hour for plastering work at a Los Feliz condominium building, Chicas says.


Rather than giving up, as others might have, Chicas kept up his effort to collect the unpaid wages for two years, hoping to set an example for his fellow workers. "It's so that they don't mock us, so they don't take advantage of us," he said in Spanish. "I know this happens to a lot of people. They don't do anything because they're timid. They don't like to speak up."


Sometimes, Chicas says, he tails the elusive Mamian, even waiting for him outside his home and office.


But Chicas says Mamian won't talk to him. Mamian avoids him or says he doesn't recognize him. "I go (to the hotel) and ask them if they can tell me where he is, but they won't tell me," Chicas says. "I won the case in court (but) since then he hasn't paid me."


Chicas' experience is not uncommon among the small group of immigrants who win legal cases against employers, said Fran Bernstein, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation. The foundation runs the Labor Defense Network to assist immigrant and low-income workers.


"Unfortunately, a lot of times our clients will get an award and the employer just won't pay," Bernstein said.


If a defendant refuses to pay a court award, the plaintiff must pay Los Angeles County marshals the cost of confiscating the defendant's property.


To confiscate a defendant's car, for example, the plaintiff must pay the marshals about $400, a sum that is beyond the reach of many immigrant workers.


"A lot of people give up. They feel it takes too long, it costs too much and it's too complicated," Bernstein said. "The smaller the claim, the less likely the person would be to pursue it for a year or longer. Two or three hundred dollars is a lot of money, but how long do you try to collect it?"


Chicas said his problems with Mamian began the day the developer picked up him and half a dozen other day laborers at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Berendo Street in Hollywood. About 200 men gather there each morning, most of them Central-American immigrants, like Chicas.


The men worked for Mamian in the condominiums for three weeks. At the end of the third week, the supervisor asked the men to work past 6 p.m., Chicas said. Because it was growing dark and the men were working on scaffolding, they feared for their safety. When they refused the request, Chicas said, they were fired.


A few days later the men appeared at the offices of the construction company, demanding their unpaid wages, Chicas said. A secretary told them Mamian was not in and they would have to return another day.


At that point, the rest of the workers gave up. But Chicas pressed on. He said he returned several times to Mamian's office at Sunwest Developers, next to the Hotel Hollywood. Sometimes he asked for Mamian--who is listed as president of Hotel Hollywood Inc.--at the lobby of the hotel. When told Mamian was not in, Chicas said he would wait outside, hoping to catch Mamian as he stepped out at the end of the day.


Eventually, Chicas filed a complaint with the state. Last March, he took Mamian to Small Claims Court and won. Mamian was ordered to pay Chicas $850.


Mamian appealed in April, but then failed to appear in Superior Court on the scheduled date in August, Chicas said. A Superior Court clerk issued Chicas a writ of execution in October, giving the immigrant worker the right to collect $1,006.44, plus 27 cents interest for each day Mamian fails to pay.


With work scarce on the Hollywood street corner recently, Chicas said, he could use the money. "It's been two months since I paid the rent," he said.


This week, as a reporter and volunteers from the Central American Refugee Center looked on, Chicas confronted a man he identified as Mamian outside the Hollywood condominium listed as his address in court records.


With a cellular phone in one hand and architectural drawings in the other, the man certainly looked like a developer. But he said of Chicas: "I've never seen this man. I don't know who he is."


"You don't know me?" Chicas shouted back angrily in Spanish. "What about there on the street corner? You knew me then."


Cathie Mahon, a legal aide with the refugee center, interjected: "We have a writ of execution. We could confiscate your car."


"Go ahead," the man said, shrugging his shoulders. "You have a writ of execution. You know the law better than I do."


The man denied being Gary Mamian, but he did say his first name was "Gary." He then drove away in a Jeep. A later check of the license plates revealed that the Jeep is registered to Mamian Construction Co.


Phone messages left on an answering machine at the construction firm were not returned Tuesday and Wednesday.


The Hotel Hollywood is now closed. Unbeknown to Chicas, Mamian and the hotel have been at the center of a legal dispute for the last year. While Chicas was trying to recover his $1,006 in back wages, a Canadian bank was pressing a suit against Mamian, alleging that he had defaulted on a $6-million loan.


The bank--the Canadian Commercial Bank in Liquidation--is attempting to take over both the hotel and the unfinished Los Feliz condominium building where Chicas says he worked in February, 1988.


Like Chicas, the bank's lawyers also had trouble locating the developer and serving him with a court summons. In a deposition, Jacquelyn Thomas, an attorney for the bank, said: "The attorney service informed me that Mamian was either avoiding service (of the suit) or that Mamian could not be located within the hotel."


Jeffrey Meyer, an attorney representing Mamian in the bank suit, declined to comment on any legal action involving his client.


Chicas and the immigrant advocates representing him believe that Mamian has the financial resources to pay the day laborer his money. Indeed, according to property records, Mamian owns at least 18 commercial lots and condominiums in Los Angeles valued at more than $1.8 million.


Mahon of the refugee center said Chicas' next legal step will be to have Los Angeles County marshals enforce the writ of execution by confiscating property belonging to Mamian.


For now, Chicas has set his sights on a 1987 Mercedes-Benz that he has learned is registered to Mamian Construction Co. If confiscated by marshals and sold at auction, it would cover Chicas' unpaid back wages, with a healthy sum left over for the county.

Thanks to this story, Fidel Chicas eventually got paid: the developer wrote him a check for $600 six months after this was published.