NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A group of former workers of a community organization based in Harlem tells 7 On Your Side Investigates they delivered meals throughout Manhattan in the back of empty cargo vans with no seats or seatbelts and were also not paid fully for their work.
"I got thrown in the back of the van, hurt my neck, hurt my back," Richard Ortecho told investigative reporter Kristin Thorne about his experience working at Charles Walburg Center - a non-profit which delivers meals to the homebound elderly.
Eyewitness News met exclusively with a group of the former workers at their attorney's office.
The workers have filed a class action lawsuit against the Walburg Center and its executive director, Carla Brown, for unpaid wages and wrongful termination.
Walburg Center and Brown deny all the allegations in the lawsuit.
The men said they worked everyday in the back of empty cargo vans sitting on crates - putting their safety in jeopardy as they navigated the treacherous streets of New York City delivering meals daily to hundreds of elderly residents.
"It was hell," Clifford Duviela said of working in the back of the vans. "There's no windows. The only window we have is the front window."
McClinton Irby said he drove the vans for nearly two years and complained to Brown about the workers not being in seats or seatbelts.
Irby said he also complained to Brown about him and other works not being supplied a lunch break because they were too busy delivering meals.
"She would say, take lunch whenever you can," Irby said. "I said, you have to mandate an hour."
The men also claim to Eyewitness News they were not paid fully for their work and were not paid overtime correctly.
Duviela said he wasn't paid for his first month of work. He said Brown fired him, but he's never received an official termination letter.
The former workers said they believe they were fired for speaking up to Brown about the safety issues in the vans and about not being paid appropriately.
According to a legal response filed by Walburg Center and Brown, the "plaintiffs were terminated as a result of plaintiffs' own actions and job performances. Plaintiffs were terminated for legitimate business reasons that justify termination, regardless of any alleged protected activity."
On a phone call with Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne, Brown said the men were fired because they routinely showed up late for work, used their personal vehicles for work and "did not do the right thing."
However, Irby showed us his termination letter from Brown, which said Irby was terminated due to budget cuts.
Ortecho said in May, paychecks for workers, including himself, bounced.
"I was really confused," he said. "I had bills due. Next check came - that was Mother's Day weekend - we didn't get paid. We're still working not knowing when we're going to get paid. Does this make any sense?"
Eyewitness News obtained a letter Brown sent to workers in May notifying them the May 26 payroll could not be met because "our service reimbursement payment is late."
Brown explains in the letter that Walburg Center is a city contracted agency through the New York City Department for the Aging.
"We ask that you offer an extension for any payment that may be due at this time while we await the disbursement of funds from our city contract," Brown wrote.
The Department for the Aging told Eyewitness News it pays on time any invoices it receives.
In an emailed statement to Eyewitness News, Brown said, "As a small not for profit, we have paid our employees all amounts due them by law."
She said employees were paid for lunch and overtime.
Brown said it is not the policy of the Walburg Center that employees work from the back of empty vans.
Eyewitness News subsequently sent Brown videos of the employees in the back of the empty vans and asked her for clarification. She did not respond.
Brown recommended Eyewitness News speak with her attorney. The attorney told investigative reporter Kristin Thorne he couldn't provide Thorne with any information. He didn't return several emails with follow-up questions.
According to Walburg Center's 2021 tax filing, Brown made $109,287 in salary.
Attorney Joseph Jeziorkowski is representing the former workers in their claims against Walburg Center and Brown.
"From the information we do have, we can tell these employees were not paid appropriately," he said. "It's wage theft in its simplest form."
In January 2021, the New York City Department for the Aging awarded Walburg Center a three-year, $5.9 million contract to deliver meals to the elderly.
The department told Eyewitness News it is aware of the center's fiscal management issues and has provided technical support to them.
The department said because Walburg is its own organization any other internal management issues at Walburg would fall outside the oversight of the Department for the Aging.
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