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When John Castaneda contacted the Adam Service employment agency in Queens in February, he paid agent Regina Adames $100, and she in turn put him in touch with a contractor named Steve Gilbert who was looking for a driver. After a week of work—for which Castaneda thought he was earning $15 an hour—the 37-year-old Colombian immigrant instead found himself in debt for roughly $10,000, thanks to a U-Haul he rented for Gilbert that was later found parked in Brooklyn with a destroyed engine.

In recent years, the State Attorney General has been cracking down on employment agencies like Adam Service, launching investigations into 42 companies, more than half of which are located in Queens. Although the vast majority of these agencies are licensed by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, they often operate outside the law by referring workers to jobs that pay below the minimum wage and using racial criteria in job referrals. Thus far, 27 of the 42 companies have signed settlements outside of court and 10 agencies have been shut down entirely. Unfortunately for Castaneda, Adam Service wasn’t one of them.

Castaneda said he followed Adames’ instructions when she directed him and five other workers to meet Gilbert on February 27, at a McDonalds on 179th Street and Hillside in Queens. After dropping five men off at a demolition site at 1120 Bergen Street in Crown Heights, Castaneda and Gilbert continued on to a U-Haul garage on Kings Highway in Flatbush. Gilbert told Castaneda to hand over his license and credit card to U-Haul so that he could legally drive the vehicle. Gilbert did most of the talking, according to U-Haul employees; Castaneda does not speak English, and did not realize that he had signed a contract that would hold him responsible for return of the truck and any damages.

When Castaneda asked about returning the U-Haul, he recalls, Gilbert said that he would do it the next day, February 28. But on the morning of March 1 the U-Haul office received a call from someone speaking flawless English, reporting that the truck had broken down in Brooklyn on 57th St. and Avenue N. U-Haul found the truck loaded with construction debris, with sections of its engine stripped. Edward Tomlinson, manager of the U-Haul garage, said the damage totals at least $10,000. Unaware of that incident, Castaneda accompanied Gilbert on another job on March 2, checking another vehicle in his name, this time from a Budget Truck Rental on Long Island. Again, he said, Gilbert promised to return the truck. On March 4, Castaneda received an angry call from U-Haul—which is when he discovered Gilbert’s duplicity. Meanwhile, the Budget rental truck was never returned. “I did what Steve told me to do,” said Castaneda. “He said that he was responsible for the truck. I just figured this was how the job worked. Plus, I trusted Regina, since she had connected me to Steve.”

Adames, however, didn’t know much about Gilbert—not even his last name. “I’ve got to trust who’s calling me, ‘cause that’s what my business is all about,” said Adames. Pauline Toole of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs said that Adam Service was operating without an employment agency license and had violated the law by not collecting more information about Gilbert. The department is now planning an investigation into the company’s practices. Adam Service also violates federal, state and local civil rights law, according to the attorney general’s office, by using racial criteria for job referrals, asking each worker to list their country of origin on an application. Adames explained this was important because “many employers looking for dishwashers only want Mexicans.”

City Limits tracked down Gilbert using cell phone numbers given to Adames. He runs at least two companies, Best American Contracting and AAA American Contracting; he said he also heads Advanced Home Improvement. Internet searches reveal two different addresses for these businesses, in Yonkers and Queens. Thomas Kramer, senior inspector at the Westchester County Department of Consumer Protection, said that AAA American Contracting had racked up a lengthy list of complaints by consumers and owes fines for operating without a contractor’s license. “They never responded to us in any way, shape or form,” Kramer said, adding that the addresses given for the company’s headquarters don’t actually exist.

Gilbert insists that he is responsible for the trucks, and is waiting for the insurance to come through, although the U-Haul contract holds only Castaneda liable. “If the insurance doesn’t cover it, then I will pay it myself,” Gilbert said.

But after two weeks of labor, none of the six demolition workers had been paid by press time, and none have returned to 1120 Bergen Street. On March 7 there was a sole demolition worker on the fourth floor, a middle-aged Mexican immigrant named Carlos. He found his job through another Queens employment agency, La Unión, and it was his second day working for “Mike.” A representative at La Unión confirmed that she had sent Carlos to “Mike,” who left two cell phone numbers—both of which belong to Steve Gilbert.

Carlos, sweating heavily, paused to listen to what had happened to Castaneda and the other workers. He stopped working, wiped the grime from his face, and said he would find another job. “I’ve already put in two days of hard labor,” Carlos said. “But what can I do? I need a boss that will actually pay.”

–Gabriel Thompson

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