BLOOMINGTON — About 50 members of the Central Illinois Organizing Project braved the cold Tuesday to turn up the heat on a contractor they say is a real-life Scrooge who doesn't pay his motel workers, many of whom are Hispanic.
Chanting slogans in Spanish, the group arrived at the Hampton Inn on Bloomington's west side and demanded to meet with the general manager concerning John Balota, who confirmed he receives money from the motel for cleaning rooms, doing laundry and other services.
Project leaders said Balota is paid by the motels he contracts with, but does not pay his workers for work they do. Some are owed thousands of dollars, according to the organization.
Balota, who arrived later to talk to reporters, denied the charge — though he admitted some workers were not paid when he began bankruptcy proceedings in September for his former business, Sonshine Cleaners II, Inc.
"I tried to apologize to all of them. It's just something that happened," Balota said. "It's tough, but I can't really do anything about it right now."
Balota currently does business under his own name and has nine employees. He declined to identify other motels with which he does business. He said he recently lost two major accounts.
The Central Illinois Organizing Project includes local churches and unions. Members of Laborers Union Local 362 attended the Hampton Inn protest.
Cristina Deutsch, who supervises the Hispanic Outreach Program at CIOP-member Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington, has said nonpayment of wages to immigrant workers who often lack legal recourse is a larger problem in Bloomington-Normal than this one case.
But on Tuesday, she focused on Balota, telling the motel's general manager, Kay Patel, the problem with Balota dates back years. A lawsuit filed in McLean County Circuit Court earlier this year by two former workers who alleged nonpayment for work done ended with a judgment against Balota after he failed to appear in court to defend himself, added group spokesman Jack Porter.
Patel, who said he was unaware of the controversy, agreed to the group's two demands: that Balota be pressured to pay his workers; and that the Hampton Inn corporation stop doing business with him if a pattern of non-payment is proved.
"I already paid John, and he can pay them," Patel said.
Balota said former workers who claim they are owed wages should bring their complaints directly to him.
"Give me all the documentation you have ?| we will see they get paid," he said.
By coincidence, a Hampton Inn corporation representative was at the motel Tuesday inspecting Balota's work, according to Balota's wife, Carolyn, who was visibly upset, claiming the group didn't have its facts straight.
"They are being paid through the (bankruptcy) court," she said.
Disputing that claim was Saul Hernandez of Bloomington, who estimated he and several family members are owed $6,000 to $7,000 for work done before and since the bankruptcy filing.
A former supervisor for Balota, Hernandez said he fielded many complaints from workers who said they were unpaid while they worked for Balota, first in Peoria and later in Bloomington.
Balota also claimed no one from Western Avenue Community Center or CIOP had discussed the matter with him. Deutsch said she had contacted Balota many times without resolution.
The controversy wound up in court in May when two workers sued Balota for back pay.
Judge William Caisley eventually entered a judgment against Balota for about $4,350 for each worker plus more than $7,300 for legal fees. Caisley also entered a judgment granting the plaintiffs $20,000 in punitive damages to "punish the defendants for their conduct and to deter future violations?|"
Balota never appeared in court to answer the allegations until after the judgment, which he asked to be set aside. In court filings, he claimed he didn't receive court papers.
He said Tuesday he was unaware of payment problems involving the two workers because he had someone else handling payroll at that time.
The workers eventually agreed to end the lawsuit when Balota paid them back wages.
Carolyn Balota said she was concerned her husband's company would lose its contract with Hampton Inn because of the CIOP action. John Balota doesn't share her concern.
"I'm not going to lose any hotels. We do an outstanding job," he said.