Candidate was ordered to pay wage claims | VailDaily.com

Candidate was ordered to pay wage claims

Several former employees of John Rosenfeld's Johnie's Garden say they turned to the Colorado Department of Labor to get wages they were owed. Rosenfeld said it stems from the tough economic times and Eagle County's hostile business enviroment. Rosenfeld is running for Eagle County commissioner.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Several of an Eagle County commissioner candidate’s former employees say they had to turn to a state enforcement agency to get paid.

The Colorado Department of Labor ordered John Rosenfeld, president of Johnie’s Garden, to pay five claims totaling $17,319.45, the agency’s regional director said.

A sixth claim, $1,246.43 to Miguel Gonzalez, brings the wage claims against Rosenfeld to $18,656.88.

Some of Rosenfeld’s workers went months without being paid, records show.

He paid all those claims, he said.

A small claims action filed Thursday morning by The Computer Guy of Vail asks that Rosenfeld pay six months worth of invoices for $4,555.30.

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Colorado Labor Department cases involving Rosenfeld stretch back to 2010, with more possibly on the horizon.

Rosenfeld said some of those filing wage demands still need to turn in things like cell phones and truck keys, Rosenfeld said.

Cean Whitmarsh quit Johnie’s Garden on June 1 and sent Rosenfeld a demand for unpaid wages, claiming he had not been paid for two months.

Roberto Parra Jr., turned to the Colorado Department of Labor to win his $13,580.45 settlement from Rosenfeld, records show. Parra calculated he was owed $17,463.97.

They settled at $13,580.45 after Saida Montoya, a Department of Labor compliance officer, negotiated a deal.

Rosenfeld wrote the check on Jan. 10, noting in the memo line, “Final Payroll Check-Paid in Full.”

Miguel Gonzalez filed a wage claim in small claims court, and was awarded $230 on Jan. 20, 2011.

On Nov. 2, 2011, Rosenfeld also wrote Gonzalez a check for $1,246.43, writing in the memo line that it was a replacement check for two others. Gonzalez said it was for wages that Rosenfeld never paid.

Gonzalez was a supervisor, running a crew for Rosenfeld’s Johnie’s Garden landscaping company.

“Guys are owed money. He’s promising and promising. I don’t know how these guys can survive. Now he wants to be a commissioner,” Gonzalez said.

“If he’s doing this, imagine what he will do when he has the power to do much more,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said he put up with it for the last four years.

The workers live in big groups to keep their rent payments low, so they can send money home to their families, Gonzalez said.

“We are here for one reason, to help our families and create a better life for them. If they wanted to suffer like this, they could stay there,” Gonzalez said.

Rosenfeld called it a symptom of tough economic times and Eagle County’s hostile business environment.

“Over the last four years we’ve had our line of credit called twice. We’ve had to move the Garden Center and had the worst year for plowing snow in the Vail Valley in memory,” Rosenfeld said.

“We operate a seasonal business with perishable inventory. Trying to do that without a line of credit is impossible,” he said.

He’s shifting the way his business handles cashflow, requiring more payment up front, he said. His flower business clients, for example, are required to pay in the spring rather than later in the summer, he said.

Johnie’s Garden cuts paychecks every two weeks, but doesn’t release them until they have the receivables to back them, Rosenfeld said.

“We’re putting together a team that will do the best possible job, so our customers are satisfied and this is no longer a problem,” Rosenfeld said. “If you choose to be part of that team, we’re glad to have you. If not, have a nice day.”

He said he’s running for county commissioner to change Eagle County’s hostile business environment.

“We’ve lost 300 businesses and more are struggling,” Rosenfeld said. “If it takes me standing up for not only Johnie’s Garden and myself, but for all the other businesses as well, I’m willing to do that. There are a heckuva a lot of businesses in this exact same situation and are embarrassed to come forward.

“I am not willing to accept the status quo. If I can do something about it, I’m going to.”

A sign in a window of the Johnie’s Garden offices in Minturn told workers that they would not be paid.

“Attention! Payroll will be released on an individual basis as funds become available. The goal is to release the entire payroll a.s.a.p. Thank you for your cooperation and understanding,” the sign said.

That’s not the law, said Bill Thoennes with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“If work has been performed, the employer owes salary or compensation to the employee who performed that work,” Thoennes said.

Businesses have all sorts of excuses for not paying their employees, Thoennes said. Late payment or non-payment is not excused because the company has fallen on hard times, Thoennes said.

“It could be for several reasons, but more often than not they’re on the ropes and they don’t want to be bouncing paychecks all over the place,” Thoennes said.

“It can sometimes be a tipoff about the company’s financial solvency,” Thoennes said.

Megan Bonta mediates wage disputes between workers and employees for Catholic Charities. She helps her clients compose wage demand letters, then lays out their options for things like small claims court or asking the Department of Labor to hear their case.

She said the problem of employers refusing to pay workers is more widespread in Eagle County than almost anyone realizes, and that it follows a familiar pattern.

Employers pay workers fully for the first few weeks, then partially for a few more pay periods. Eventually they stop paying and that’s when she gets involved, she said.

She has helped dozens of clients file claims in small claims court and with the state Department of Labor.

Sometimes they’re successful in collecting wages, sometimes they’re not, she said.

“Many companies are late, but they pay,” Bonta said. “Sometimes the check really does get lost or the hours don’t get logged correctly.”

It’s a widespread problem especially among seasonal workers, Bonta said. In 2011 and 2012 she said she has mediated wage disputes with 18 Eagle County businesses for $269,821. She calculates that for every worker who comes to her for help, five others don’t.

“Relief agencies are getting hammered with rent assistance requests from people who should be getting paid, but aren’t. It’s a growing problem,” Bonta said.

Families can’t buy food or pay rent. One family was trying to figure out how to pay for a family member’s cancer treatments, Bonta said.

Bonta said a new influx of summer season workers with similar complaints is already rolling through her office.

The Internal Revenue Service charges these workers income taxes on wages earned, whether they received them or not, Bonta said.

“It a real hardship for these people,” she said.

The Colorado Department of Labor gets about 5,000 claims a year, and it has been increasing since the recession hit, said Mike McArdle, a regional director with the agency. Colorado’s U.S. Department of Labor office gets around that many, he said.

“The vast majority get paid, just like he paid his,” McArdle said. “Many are business owners who don’t know what the law is. We explain it to them.”

If someone quits they have to be paid on the next regular payday, McArdle said. If they’re fired they have to be paid within 24 hours. If you can’t pay them on the spot and you’re mailing the check, it has to be postmarked within 24 hours, McArdle said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.