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EXCLUSIVE: Workers say contractor fired them after immigration protest

On Thursday, 40 employees of a Boca Raton construction company skipped work to participate in a national “Day Without Immigrants” protest.

When they returned to their Miami job site Friday, workers say, four were fired — although the employer said the terminations were unrelated to the protest. The other 36 decided to sit out another day to support the fired workers.

READ ALSO: Trump again hires foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago; little change in pay

On Sunday, a dozen of the workers met at the West Palm Beach office of the Laborers International Union of North America to discuss how to protect their jobs and what action they might take against their employer, Orange & Blue Construction Inc.

The episode underscores the simmering tensions in South Florida’s construction industry, which long has relied on foreign labor.

Immigrant workers typically favor lenient policies about who’s allowed to remain in the United States. In something of an ideological mismatch, their bosses often are loyal to the Republican Party, which has engaged in tough talk about immigration policy since the election of President Donald Trump.

Of the 40 workers who stayed off Orange & Blue Construction’s site last week, most are carpenters and laborers from Central America. They said the protest was meant to convey their concerns about the apparently harsher direction of immigration policy.

“Our coworkers are afraid of the police, of being deported,” said one worker, a Honduran immigrant who asked not to be named.

Their bosses at Orange & Blue Construction see the protests as an overreaction.

“People need to understand the government is only targeting people who are criminals,” the company said in an unsigned message sent to workers last week.

Orange & Blue Construction is owned by William Randle Jr. He declined to comment, but his attorney said in a statement that about 30 workers didn’t show up on Thursday.

“None of the workers gave us notification or a reason for their absence,” Randle’s attorney said. “The four O&B employees who were terminated were terminated for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with their absence from work. O&B is very appreciative of the efforts of all our employees and we take pride in providing a great work environment including healthcare and a 401(k) program.”

As his company’s name suggests, Randle is a proud graduate of the University of Florida. Orange & Blue Construction ranks No. 11 on the latest Gator 100 list, which honors fast-growing companies run by UF alumni.

Workers at Sunday’s meeting said they’re building an apartment complex in Miami. They said Orange & Blue Construction pays $18 to $27 an hour — a hefty wage by Central American standards, but below the national average of $28.52 an hour earned by construction workers in January, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The workers at Orange & Blue Construction are not union members, but they met Sunday with labor organizers. Andrei Rolle, president of Laborers International Union Local 1652, told workers to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board — and to understand that the labor market’s supply-and-demand equation is in their favor.

“The reality is there’s a shortage of workers right now,” Rolle said. “They need you.”

Workers complained that Orange & Blue Construction’s has a lax attitude toward safety and paying for on-the-job injuries. Alvaro Hercules, a carpenter from El Salvador, said he was stuck with a $1,500 hospital bill after he broke his finger on the job.

The 17-year-old company has been disciplined just once by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Orange & Blue was ordered to pay $564 in fines for two violations after an inspection in 2009.

Laborers International Union organizer Angel Vallejos acted as translator during Sunday’s meeting, and he indicated that the relationship between the company and its workers was strained but not beyond repair.

“A win would be if everybody got their jobs back,” Vallejos said.

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