MINNEAPOLIS — A businessman accused of exploiting his construction workers has pleaded guilty as his trial was about to start in Minneapolis.

Ricardo Ernesto Batres, 47, pleaded guilty Monday in Hennepin County to labor trafficking and insurance fraud. Sentencing will take place on Jan. 15, 2020.

According to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), an advocacy organization that supported the workers in the case, the plea deal includes five years' probation and 270 days in the workhouse.

According to the criminal complaint filed in Hennepin County District Court in September of 2018, Batres recruited workers for his company, American Contractors and Associates, LLC, to do wood framing and wall board installation construction work.

At the company's height in the summer of 2017, the complaint says Batres had more than a dozen workers.

Prosecutors allege that Batres knew his workers were undocumented, and used that knowledge to force them to work long hours for less than market pay, without adequate safety protections. According to the complaint, he had them work as high as six stories without proper safety equipment. He had employees work 10 to 12-hour days, Monday through Saturday and sometimes Sunday, without overtime, according to the complaint.

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The complaint says Batres did not offer workers' compensation, and when workers were injured, he told them they would lose their jobs and be deported if they sought medical attention. He instead sent them to a massage therapist and traditional healer.

The charges also allege that Batres told workers he would pay them while they were unable to work, but did not follow through. That resulted in some workers returning to work while still injured.

Around July 5, 2017, after a number or workplace injuries, the complaint says that a group of employees decided they could no longer work for Batres. The complaint says Batres had put the group of workers up in an overcrowded house in Bloomington with no hot water, and then stopped paying rent. On the morning of July 11, ICE stopped the workers leaving the house and arrested multiple people. Several were immediately deported, and others remained in custody. 

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The complaint says Batres visited those employees and gave them advice, telling them he had hired a lawyer. Records indicate that no attorney hired by Batres actually worked on their cases.

According to the complaint, once one worker was able to get released on an immigration bond, Batres waited for him when he came out of the detention center. Batres completed the paperwork and spoke to the officials in English, listing himself as the contact for the employee, according to the complaint. That means the employee would have to go to Batres' home every week for his "check in" call with ICE. According to the complaint, Batres told the employee that he knew people at ICE. His message, as quoted in the charges, was "if you try to leave I can harm you."

That employee says Batres claimed he paid $7,000 for an attorney and another $6,000 to get him out of custody, and that he had to work for him to pay off the debt.

The employee kept working until he was badly injured at a work site in November 2017. A wall fell on him, causing multiple spinal fractures.

Batres told the workers not to call an ambulance, and said they should bring the employee to get a massage, according to the complaint. The workers insisted on bringing him to the hospital, but Batres intercepted them and brought the employee himself.

Prosecutors say the employee was hospitalized for six days and still has lasting pain from the injury.

According to the complaint, Batres lied to hospital staff about how the injury happened, and told the employee that if he didn't go along with it he'd be deported. This resulted in Hennepin County approving emergency medical assistance. $45,000 in public funds were used to pay for the medical care, according to prosecutors.

“This trial represents an industry in distress," said Veronica Mendez Moore, a co-director of CTUL. "In non-union construction work labor violations and wage theft are expected and respect and dignity are regularly denied. Real estate developers and their financial backers are directly profiting from this kind of labor exploitation. While some sectors of the construction industry are unionized and abide by human rights standards, there is a dark underbelly that does not.”