Just a few days after arriving in New York City from Ecuador, Joseph Garcia typed “trabajos New York’’ into Google. His search led him to an ad for an employment agency that guaranteed jobs in construction, housekeeping, and hospitality. Desperate to find work, Garcia contacted the agency on WhatsApp. He was told that there was a $150 fee for the application, which would secure him three job offers.
The next day, Garcia headed to the agency’s office in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. He filled out a simple form and used the last of his savings to pay the $150 fee.
“He told me that I was going to make $18 an hour at an Irish restaurant, working as a kitchen helper,” Garcia said in Spanish, referring to the man who interviewed him at the agency. “He was going to send me the address for the job that afternoon.”
Garcia waited all day to receive a text with instructions for his first day on the job, but no one reached out. Days went by, and he still did not hear back from the agency, despite his multiple phone calls.
Garcia is one of many immigrant workers who signed a contract with Big Apple Jobs, an unlicensed employment agency that charges upfront fees in exchange for unfulfilled promises of jobs. More than 100,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the city over the last year, some of whom were bused by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in what many have seen as a political stunt. With the new influx of asylum seekers, agencies like Big Apple Jobs have proliferated in the city. The newly arrived migrants, who often must wait several months to receive a work permit, are particularly vulnerable.
Sonia Reyes, 34, who says she lost her job after becoming pregnant, saw employment agencies as her only hope in a tight job market. “There aren’t too many jobs out there, and there are a lot of requirements, so agencies are supposed to find jobs for you that fit your skills.”
She found Big Apple Jobs online, and after signing the application form and paying the $150 fee, she says she was given an address for a deli in Brooklyn where she would work at the register; the pay was never discussed. When Reyes arrived at the deli, however, she was quickly turned away by a manager for not being fluent in English. She called the agency but no one answered. She is still hoping to hear back from them.
“They take advantage of one’s needs. I have a family, I have a child to raise,” said Reyes. “And because you’re desperate to find a job, you end up trusting people like that.”
Eight people who signed contracts with Big Apple Jobs were interviewed for this article. Only one of them said they were able to get a refund, for $75 — half of what they had originally paid. All of them identified the man who interviewed them and collected their payments as “Nelson.”
At the Brooklyn office, Nelson said that he was aware of the accusations.
“I’m not the owner of this business. I’m an employee,” he said in Spanish. “We’ve been here for three years, and we’ve never had a problem with the police.” He explained that applicants sign a contract that allows the agency up to 45 days to find work for them before they are eligible to request a partial refund. He thinks that many people come with “unrealistic expectations” and get frustrated when they are not placed in a job immediately.
The red Big Apple Jobs logo that appears on the agency’s application forms is nowhere to be found in the office. Instead, the front door and windows are covered with white and blue signs that read “Destiny Moving.”
“We are a moving company and we also have an online employment agency,” he explained.
Destiny Moving is registered with the New York Department of State as C.M. Kamelot Enterprise, LLC. Carlos Jose Avalo is listed as the registered agent.
In a phone interview, Avalo denied any wrongdoing. He identified “Nelson” as Mandela Ahmine, and accused him of running a side business without his knowledge.
“There are about 50 to 60 people who applied with our company but are not on our records,” Avalo said in Spanish. “We were not able to find jobs for them because they are not on our records.”
Ahmine, according to Avalo, used the Square app to charge the application fees and deposited the money in his wife’s bank account. He would then cease communication with applicants and even block them on his cellphone, according to Avalo and several immigrants. After finding out about his employee’s actions in mid September, Avalo says he fired Ahmine.
Avalo said he is working to find jobs for those who signed contracts with Ahmine, and that he gave partial refunds to those who waited more than 45 days. But he maintains that Ahmine is “ultimately responsible.”
Ahmine could not be reached for comment on these allegations as he stopped responding to follow-up questions by blocking a reporter on his phone and social media.
The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) licenses and inspects employment agencies in New York City. DCWP prohibits employment agencies from charging fees before a job placement. If charged, workers have the right to request a full refund, which must be paid within seven days.
But asylum seekers and undocumented workers rarely come forward with complaints, for fear of retaliation or jeopardizing their immigration cases. In fact, DCWP told City Limits recently that the number of complaints about employment agencies are on track to decrease this year. There were 40 complaints filed between January and June; last year, there were a total of 130 complaints.
In a statement, DCWP spokesperson Stephany Vasquez said that the department recently launched an outreach campaign with nonprofits and legal providers “to ensure that people seeking asylum are aware of their rights and the consumer protections they are entitled to in New York City.”
When asked about DCWP’s regulations, Avalo responded that his agency “does not charge for finding work, we charge for a membership.” According to him, the job search is just one of several benefits of the membership, which also includes English and work-safety training.
However, the contract’s first page reads “Solicitud de Empleo,” which is Spanish for “employment application.” The document neither mentions training courses nor alludes to a membership. It is also missing the required DCWP license number of the agency.
The license approval “is still pending,” Avalo said.
After not hearing from Big Apple Jobs for four days, Joseph Garcia returned to the agency. This time, he found about 10 other people waiting outside the office; they were also demanding refunds. Some were Ecuadorian, like him, while others were from Venezuela or Colombia. Some had just arrived in New York after crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous stretch of rain forest and mountains between Colombia and Panama.
Garcia felt sympathetic for the other migrants, whom he saw as less fortunate than him.
“There are people who don’t have any money but do whatever it takes to save up the $150,” he said.