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Workers who made face masks sue Chicago company for wage theft

A group of Hispanic workers hired to make face masks from their homes during the height of the pandemic has filed a wage-theft lawsuit against the heads of the Chicago company that employed them, claiming they are still owed money for thousands of hours of work.

Fifteen workers, mostly women ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, were hired in April 2020 to manufacture masks for $15 an hour while the country was facing lockdowns and shortages of personal protective equipment.

Things mostly went fine for the first few weeks with paychecks arriving regularly.

But things developed throughout the summer until, finally the workers decided to stop making masks in September 2020 because they hadn’t been paid for weeks, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court last week.

The workers were employed by Ultio Crati Inc. The company, along with executives Victor and Nicholas Santana and John Joyce, were named in the lawsuit.

None of the men could be reached for comment.

One worker, Patricia Sanchez, 44, of Oak Forest, said Tuesday that Victor Santana offered several excuses for delayed payments including ATM cash withdrawal limits and extremely long lines at bank teller windows.

“I was without money … my hands with blisters,” Sanchez said of the work cutting fabric and elastic material. “I was sad and deceived,” she said, noting the emotional and economic fallout left her leaning on her sister for financial support.

“It’s not fair. We don’t want the same to happen to other people,” she said.

The company’s website advertised face masks that were “made ethically” and were for sale to hospitals and the general public, according to the suit.

Company executives “abused the workers and took advantage of the pandemic,” said Ada Sandoval, an attorney with Raise the Floor Alliance, a workers’ rights group.

The workers, who were provided sewing machines, made about 5,000 masks a week and turned into paper timesheets that recorded their 48-hour workweeks.

“We believed them. So we kept working because we needed the money,” saidElva Martinez Gonzalez, 50, of Poznań.

Martinez Gonzalez, whose children are 24 and 15, worked as a bus driver but suddenly found herself out of work as students stayed home during the pandemic. She hoped the job with Ultio Crati would provide financial stability.

“They didn’t fulfill their promises. So we decided to fight,” she said.

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