Chicago mask makers file lawsuit alleging unpaid wages

Patricia Sanchez, 44, said she was one of the last of a group of employees to stop working for their employer after they went “weeks and weeks and weeks” without getting paid.

She was hired by Ultio Crati Inc. in April 2020 to help produce cloth face masks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, and did so until September of that year.

She said in the beginning, “everything was fine,” and she got her first couple of paychecks for her work, but then the payments stopped.

“This made an incredible economic impact and emotional stress too,” Sanchez said. “When you’re told that you’re going to get a check and you don’t. You’re working for your family and can’t make it.”

Sanchez is one of 15 former employees of Ultio Crati who filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the company alleging several violations of state and federal law as well as a city ordinance relating to minimum, overtime and earned wages.

Ada Sandoval, a staff attorney with Raise the Floor Alliance, who is representing the former workers along with the National Legal Advocacy Network, said each worker is “owed thousands of hours.”

Sandoval said the company “falsely advertised the masks” by saying they were made ethically on the website.

A representative from Ultio Crati Inc. could not be reached for comment.

Sanchez, Sandoval, and others spoke about the lawsuit, filed about a week ago, at a news conference at Arise Chicago Tuesday, which included other workers and their family members.

Sanchez said she was offered the job making face masks for $15 an hour, working 48 hours a week, which would come out to $720 a week.

Her job, she said, was to prepare materials, including cutting elastics and little pieces of metal for the masks.

“We all contributed doing different parts of the process,” she said.

The group of employees decided they were not going to work anymore because “we were not going to be working so hard only to be giving our work away,” she said.

She said the reason why she stuck it out a little longer than her co-workers, however, was because she still believed in her employer.

“I was still believing that we were going to be paid,” she said.

Sanchez said she asked about getting paid, and received “one reason after another” as to why the money wasn’t coming, such as an ATM withdrawal limit of $500, or that lines at the bank were too long to wait.

Elva Martinez-Gonzalez, 50, said after payments stopped, the group kept working because they “needed the money” and believed it would be forthcoming.

“We had that need, and they abused us,” she said. “They abused our needs and our trust in them. We believed they were honest, and they abused us and they abused people who needed masks.”

She said the job was “hard” as the group would produce some 4,800 masks each week. At one point when the group asked why they weren’t being paid, they were told that they were “not being honest” about the number of masks they were making. Martinez-Gonzalez said it was a “difficult” time because their employers “were the ones who were not being honest.”

Besides not being paid for the hours she worked, she said she was also never compensated for all the materials she and several others had to buy with their own money.

“We were promised many things but they didn’t fulfill their promises nor their responsibilities as employers,” she said.

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