On May 10, 2017, a Boston wall taper who had broken his leg in a fall from a ladder during work six weeks earlier took his two-year-old son to an office of a West Bridgewater, Mass.-based contractor, on the invitation of the CEO who asked him to come and gave the worker $500 to help him get by while recovering. 

A few minutes later, after the craft worker left the office on crutches and started to drive away, federal immigration police pulled him over, apprehended him for questioning and held him in custody for two weeks.

The call to the boss's office and the arrest seemed to have been coordinated.

A U.S. Dept. of Labor whistleblower investigator, after learning what had happened partly from a Boston radio station report, filed a lawsuit in federal court in that city on behalf of the taper, José Martin Paz Flores. The civil lawsuit accused contractor Tara Construction's CEO Pedro Pirez of arranging the arrest in retaliation for Paz Flores' causing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to learn of his accident.

Last week, a jury ordered the contractor and its CEO to pay $650,000 in damages to Paz Flores, most of it punitive.

The U.S. Labor Dept. "will not tolerate retaliation against employees who complain of workplace abuses, including when an employer seeks to use an employee's perceived immigration status as a way to intimidate."
Seema Nanda, U.S. Labor Dept. Solicitor

The department and OSHA hailed the verdict as a strike against employers intimidating vulnerable undocumented workers, saying that Tara and Pirez deliberately triggered events leading to Paz Flores' arrest.

The department "will not tolerate retaliation against employees who complain of workplace abuses, including when an employer seeks to use an employee's perceived immigration status as a way to intimidate workers," said Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda in a statement after the verdict.

Pirez attorney Daniel Dwyer said the jury made a bad decision, issuing a statement that there was “strong legal basis for overturning the verdict” and that an appeal was possible.

The controversy over what actually happened touches on several immigration and construction hot buttons involving the demographic surge of Hispanics in construction. One is the Biden administration's attempt to prioritize deportations of undocumented immigrants who pose crime or security threats. A federal judge in Texas recently struck down that approach, saying the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. could not distinguish among the different types of immigration violations in prioritizing arrests.

Biden's Deportation Priorities

Another hot button is the Labor Dept.'s aim to protect undocumented workers from exploitation by employers. In 2017, during the Trump administration, the Paz Flores case seemed to set a precedent for protecting from deportation immigrants who are involved in OSHA safety investigations. But that precedent did not hold up two years later when a complainant involved in the fatal 2019 mid-construction collapse of a Hard Rock Cafe Hotel in New Orleans was deported during the Trump Administration, as the New York Times reported.

Jacquelyn Pavilon and Vicky Virgin, scholars who co-authored a recent study of immigrant construction workers in New York City, wrote that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are "vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous conditions."

But it appears rare to find a case of an employer actually involved in facilitating the arrest and possible deportation of a worker.

A perplexing question hanging over the Paz Flores case is how a small certified minority-owned contractor, itself started by a Latino immigrant who operates using union labor, dealt with the Honduran taper who entered the U.S. illegally in 2000. Abuses of undocumented workers can take many forms—but threat of deportation is said to be most effective.

[Contractor] Pedro Pirez arrived in America as a Cuban immigrant "owning nothing"
Daniel Dwyer, attorney for Tara Construction CEO Pedro Pirez

The story is complicated.

Pedro Pirez arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant from Cuba "owning nothing," according to a statement from Dwyer, his attorney, who said the contractor "cares deeply" for those in Paz Flores' situation."

Tara Construction, a framing, siding, roofing and finish carpentry contractor, is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration and has over the years "employed thousands of immigrants," Dwyer stated.

"Put your company's business in our hands and we'll treat it as our own," Pirez says on the company's website.

When Paz Flores fell, workers at the scene called 911, bringing Boston Fire Dept. and Boston Emergency Medical Service personnel to his aid—after which fire officials notified OSHA's regional office, which opened an injury investigation.

After the accident Pirez visited the hospital where Paz Flores was being treated for a broken femur. Required surgery would keep Paz Flores out of work for months. But AmGuard Insurance Co., Tara Construction's workers' compensation insurer, had just that day cut off coverage because of a late payment from the firm.

What happened during Pirez' hospital visit with Paz Flores is disputed.

The Labor Dept. stated that Pirez asked Paz Flores questions relating to immigration status. According to a 2017 deposition by Michael Mabee, an OSHA whistleblower investigator for the region, Paz Flores said Pirez asked him whether he missed his family in Honduras, and about passports. The CEO then mentioned something about his own trips to Cuba.

Paz Flores asked Pirez for help, the Labor Dept. stated. According to Dwyer, Pirez has treated workers over the years "with compassion and generosity."Tara Construction reported the injury to its insurance agent, who notified the state Dept. of Industrial Accidents, and Tara claimed that it duly recorded the mishap on its OSHA Form 300. Tara claims the federal agency closed its investigation of the incident.

In the aftermath of the accident, Tara Construction and Pirez noticed that Paz Flores had used slightly different names in previous times he had worked for the company. With a stolen Social Security number and false permanent resident card presented to the company, Paz Flores identified himself as “Martin Paz.”

Tara Construction and Pirez never told the hospital where Paz Flores was being treated that the firm's insurance had lapsed the day prior to the accident, the Labor Dept. claimed.

In early April, Pirez conveyed his doubts about Paz Flores' suspected fraud to a relative who worked for the Boston Police Dept., providing him with the construction worker's green card information. The officer's colleague contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which involved numerous phone calls between either police or agency personnel and the contractor that led to Paz Flores' arrest, according to evidence at the recently completed trial.

WBUR, a nonprofit radio station, learned of Paz Flores' arrest and featured photos of him on the station website. Its story noted that Paz Flores and his wife, also an undocumented immigrant, had five children. The story featured photos of Paz Flores with his face partially obscured.

At trial, Labor Dept. attorneys entered evidence to convince the jury that Pirez triggered the arrest of Paz Flores by immigration enforcement officers out of hostility toward the injured worker and because he had, the government said, "caused" OSHA to learn of his fall and broken leg.

The department termed the actions as retaliation, hinting that Pirez wanted to keep the accident out of Tara Construction's OSHA log. Paz Flores' employment status—he is believed to be a union member paid $22 an hour—were part of the trial evidence.

In WBUR's story, Paz Flores spoke out about his treatment by Pirez.

"Yeah, I do feel like I was betrayed by my employer," he is quoted as saying. "All I did was try to work to earn a living and I wasn't looking for anything extra."

Gang violence, he told WBUR, had driven both he and his wife to leave Honduras, and it is too dangerous to return.

OSHA Accuses Pirez of Lies

OSHA, which interviewed Pirez as part of its investigation, claimed that he "lied and attempted to mislead OSHA about his actions." The Labor Dept's legal team argued during the weeklong trial that Pirez facilitated the arrest of Paz Flores, and that the meeting to give him the $500 was a pretext to lure him to where he could be easily apprehended.

In addition to giving the department shifting and misleading statements about what happened, its attorneys accused Pirez of failing to fully verify Paz Flores' immigration documentation, treating differently employees who lacked that documentation and having "a history of underreporting injuries" to OSHA and its workers' compensation insurer.

These accusations could not be independently verified by ENR. OSHA records show that Tara Construction settled modest fines imposed against it by OSHA over Paz Flores' ladder accident. The taper sued the construction firm separately in state court, reaching a settlement.

Paz Flores' immigration attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment on his immigration status.

Dwyer and Tara Construction entered evidence to show that events leading to the arrest of Paz Flores and ICE's decision to take that action were the inadvertent result of Pirez' confusion and concern over the worker's multiple names and falsified social security number and ID card.

Pirez became concerned that Paz Flores' aliases might cause trouble for Tara Construction, although he could not say how, his attorney argued. Pirez thought that a good first step would be to learn the worker's real name, which prompted the CEO to contact his police officer cousin.

Pirez "needed to know Paz Flores’ real name because the hospital was pressing for information, and he never foresaw what would ensue," stated Dwyer, his lawyer. "It is tragic that Pedro Pirez was caught up in it all. While he respects the jury, he knows that it misjudged him."