INVESTIGATIVE UNIT: Disaster restoration company under microscope for questionable actions
***Disclaimer: A number of businesses are named in a public document released to the Investigative Unit by the Ascension Parish School Board. Only Wallace, Rush and Schmidt Inc. (WRS) is the subject of this report. Blackmon Mooring/BMS has no affiliation with WRS.***
BATON ROUGE- There are serious allegations of payroll problems by a company already under the microscope for unscrupulous activities. The company hired hundreds of people in Baton Rouge to gut buildings damaged by the flood. Now, many of those workers claim they haven't been paid.
The company is WRS Inc. which stands for "Wallace Rush Schmidt." People who did work for them say there were no applications, no background checks and many claim there was also no payment for the work they performed.
"It's bulls***," one worker said.
"This s*** ain't cool," another said.
Hundreds of people are hot. Tempers are flaring. Those are the sentiments from weary workers in the Baton Rouge region waiting to get their money after doing some back-breaking work.
"We cleaning out debris," a worker said. "We breaking out Sheetrock you know, St. Amant High School taking everything out of the high school, the lockers, desks, tables."
The flooding was extensive at St. Amant High, causing some $3 million worth of damage. The men and women working there were bussed to Highland Road near State Police Troop A headquarters.
"He's giving everybody a number," the worker said. "Wants you to call that number. He's going to give you an excuse. Nobody is getting paid."
The people here say they're working for WRS. The company gives people pay cards and pre-loaded amounts to them instead of paying them through traditional means. All of them say they were hired under the table with promises of receiving almost $12 an hour to do the work.
"I started working for WRS on the 18th of last month," Latarai Jack said. "I walked on the site and asked whether I wanted to work, and they put me to work."
Latarai Jack is a single mother of four kids. She claims she's owed at least $500 for work she performed. She is still waiting to get her money. Jack also did a lot of manual labor.
"Cutting walls, cutting insulation, packing boxes of debris and all the things that were either destroyed or wasn't destroyed...pulled up carpet," Jack recalled.
Jack provided text messages she received from a man who worked for WRS claiming the company remains committed to its workers. She also received another message telling her, he no longer is on the Baton Rouge project, and to contact a number in Arkansas pertaining to her pay issue. Tonight, she's been stonewalled.
"I worked personally with people that I grew up with that still haven't been paid," Jack said. "Or only got $76 on their card and worked five or six days."
We went to Mandeville to track down Eddie Schmidt. He happens to be a constable in St. Tammany Parish. He also happens to be one of the owners of WRS, that's the company that many people in the Baton Rouge area say they performed work for and were never paid.
When WBRZ's Investigative Unit called Schmidt's cell, a voice mail picked up. Daily attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful. So, we went to his house in the upscale Beau Chene subdivision.
No one came to the door. WRS may sound familiar. That's because last month a bus carrying a bunch of workers crashed in Laplace killing three people. It was driven by Dennis Amaya Rodriguez, an illegal immigrant in Louisiana who had been caught at least six times for driving without a license. The Investigative Unit has learned at least 24 people on that bus were also illegal immigrants. The workers Amaya was driving were in route to the Baton Rouge region seeking jobs for WRS. There are multiple owners, one in Arkansas and Louisiana.
Back to the lot where infuriated workers waited, they want others in the area to know about WRS and the run around they're getting after completing their work. For Latarai Jack, she gets emotional just thinking about how she's going to make ends meet.
"Don't just keep what we rightfully worked for," Jack said. "That's not right."
Since many of the workers claimed they were gutting St. Amant High, we checked with the Ascension Parish School Board. So far, it has paid out $6.1 million for repairs to its flooded schools. It paid a disaster restoration company to perform the work, and it doesn't know where it found the workers. The company hired was ServPro. We reached out, and heard back from an attorney representing WRS late Monday.
The Attorney for WRS said about 100 people have not been paid because the company did not have the correct Social Security numbers for those employees. The company's attorney said it has turned in thousands of I-9 forms to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, many of the people we talked to said they didn't have to fill out any job applications or go through any background checks before they started working.
So will these folks have any recourse? The Louisiana Workforce Commission told us since there's no labor board in Louisiana, these workers will have to come up with the money to sue WRS. The Attorney General's office referred us to the Work Force Commission.The Work Force Commission ultimately referred us back to the Attorney General, two state agencies pointing the finger at each other, as solutions are few and far between for these workers.