RENO — The Reno Housing Authority is accused of violating U.S. labor laws by hiring assistant apartment managers at public housing units to work long hours for only a fraction of the minimum wage, with no overtime, in exchange for free rent.
Lawyers for a disabled U.S. military veteran are seeking class-action status for the suit over the practice they say is “morally as well as legally wrong.”
Joaquin Roces, 49, claims he was fired last week and ordered out of his home with the equivalent of $600 monthly rent in retaliation for complaining that he was receiving less than $1 an hour for working, or being on call to work, more than 150 hours a week.
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones postponed a ruling on Roces’ request for a restraining order after the housing authority agreed on Monday to let him remain there until Dec. 31.
Charles Zeh, a lawyer representing the authority, denied any wrongdoing. But he told The Associated Press that they’ve launched a review to determine whether changes are needed.
The suit claiming violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act seeks back pay, unspecified damages and reinstatement of Roces’ job.
“My intent here is not to get wealthy,” Roces told AP. “What I’m seeking ultimately is justice. I don’t think I’m being treated fairly.”
His lawyers said Roces was notified of eviction days after he complained that he’s entitled to the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 — $8.75 in Nevada.
“Immediately upon demanding he gets paid, they try to throw him out on the street,” Joshua Buck said.
The lawsuit targets the in-kind compensation for “live-in” employees working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, without pay. They’re required to be on site and available to respond within 10 minutes for an additional 113 hours a week.
Roces effectively received $3.47 hourly based on a 40-hour week and only 93 cents including on-call hours, the suit said.
The suit says the “widespread, repeated and unlawful” practice involves as many as 20 others in “live-in” situations. It says the agency uses the barter system to avoid paying for workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, Social Security and other payroll taxes.
“It is unconscionable that a quasi-governmental agency should become a prime example of the underground economy in our state ... while extracting labor from those least able to protect themselves,” the suit said. It said the rental unit’s value was “so flagrantly below any living wage that any reasonable person would know that this arrangement was morally as well as legally wrong.”
The Reno Housing Authority manages 764 public housing units, 100 for low-income households.
Roces’ lawyers are investigating whether other housing authorities do the same thing.
“I think it’s a fairly common occurrence,” Mark Thierman said.
Zeh said Roces “wasn’t fired — the contract was not renewed.”
“The housing authority had reasons, but that is a personnel matter and we are not going to talk about that unless we are forced to,” he said.
Zeh said the authority never intended to evict him Aug. 31.
“He was not going to be thrown out onto the street,” Zeh said. “That’s not the way the Reno Housing Authority acts. They are there to help people, not hinder people. Frankly, it’s going to look at the entire program with this ‘live-in’ arrangement and see whether it is in the best interest of the housing authority to continue it.”
Roces said he ended up homeless for two days because housing officials demanded he relinquish his keys Aug. 29. He said he wasn’t able to get an explanation from his supervisor so he left, fearing a trespassing arrest.
“I slept in a storm drain,” he said.