The first time Odalys López tried to deposit her biweekly check and was told there were no funds to cover it, she thought it must be a mistake.
It had only been seven months since she arrived in the United States from Cuba and she was happy to have been able to find a job in her profession: phlebotomist (the technicians responsible for collecting blood samples).
Over the next five months, López continued working at the Alliance Blood Foundation blood bank despite having had other incidents of paychecks with no funds. But in January, after several days passed without being able to collect or receive a response from supervisors for a paycheck of $1,300 — which was supposed to cover payment due for work the previous September — she decided she could not stay on with the foundation.
López is not the only employee who has had trouble collecting payment from the company during the past year. Eleven other former workers, most of them of Cuban origin, filed a lawsuit in November against Alliance Blood Foundation Corp. and its board members: Wilbert Beckford, Marianela Collazo Fernández, Norkis Lezcano and Robert McKie.
The lawsuit states that the organization — registered in Florida a year ago as a nonprofit entity — owes them a total of $15,000 in wages and overtime violations. “Alliance was established for the purpose of taking advantage of its employees, like plaintiffs, and generating donations for its officers salaries and expenses,” the document said.
Alliance was established for the purpose of taking advantage of its employees...
In addition, three other former employees, including Odalys López, filed individual complaints of wage theft with the Miami-Dade Consumer Protection Mediation Center. The amount the three claim they are owed totals $2,795.50.
According to the former workers, the Alliance Blood Foundation Corp traveled to Florida cities, especially Fort Myers and Naples, with two buses and asked passers-by to donate blood. The work schedule was from noon to midnight, but sometimes extended an hour or two, they said.
Regarding the irregularities of payment, those affected who spoke with el Nuevo Herald described the same scenario, although not all worked at the company at the same time. “First, they told us they would pay us weekly. The first few days were good... there were never delays or problems with the payment,” said Cadmiel López, who worked from June to September and claims that he is owed about $2,000.
Then the problems started. The company no longer paid weekly, but “extended the check to two or three weeks,” said Marlene Quesada, who worked until July 15, and claims she is still owed $3,000. And when depositing the checks at the bank, the employees found that the foundation had no funds to cover the payments.
When the workers complained in the office, Beckford gave them excuses. According to Quesada, “it was always a pretext, they would say that money would come in two or three days.” Others were told about a loan that was about to take effect, or that the money had to be spent to pay for the location or to buy supplies for the office.
Several of those affected said the foundation also claimed that another reason for the delay or decrease in the agreed wage was because they had not collected a large number of donated blood. “They would make up a story that production goals had not been reached,” said Yasmani del Toro.
They would make up a story that production goals had not been reached.
Yasmani del Toro
And if they dared to make too much noise about the owed wages, those affected said that the boss insulted and verbally abused them. Juliana González, who worked from November 2016 to January 2017 and says she is owed $950, said that the last time she met with Beckford she was afraid he was going to hit her because he got very close and started yelling at her.
The majority of those affected stressed that their frustration was not only because they could not collect their owed wages, but because their former supervisors no longer answered the phone, nor responded to text messages. El Nuevo Herald tried to contact Beckford, Collazo (who was Beckford's partner) and Lezcano on their personal phone numbers and via Facebook. Beckford did not respond, but Collazo and Lezcano told el Nuevo Herald separately that they were only employed by the company and the owner should be the one to respond.
Alliance Blood Foundation Corp was dissolved a month ago, on Feb. 17. At the Miami Dade address that appears in all legal documents, 9756 SW 24 St., they have not been seen since November and workers at neighboring businesses said they left because they owed money not only to former employees, but also to the administration of the shopping center.
In late October, Coral 97 & Associates — the shopping center administrators — filed a lawsuit against the blood bank for failing to pay rent since September, leaving $5,790.88 in debt. In February, the judge presiding over the case ruled in favor of the shopping center and ordered the foundation to leave the premises, something that had also happened three months before.
Although Alliance Blood Foundation Corp was created a year ago, its owner, Wilbert Beckford, is no stranger to blood banks. In April 2011, he opened a private company called the Alliance Blood Center and was listed as vice president in founding a not-for-profit organization called Alliance Blood Foundation Inc. It should be noted that it is not the same entity sued by former workers, although the name is very similar.
The private company was shut down a year later, but the not-for-profit company was retained until 2013, when Beckford asked the Florida Division of Corporations for the company to be dissolved and another one opened with the same name but for profit. “I have determined it is in the best interest of the company to operate as a for-profit corporation,” says the letter requesting the change, which further indicates that this company had not been registered with the Internal Revenue Service.
Florida accepted the registration of the new for-profit corporation, which remained operational until Feb. 18, 2016, the day after it opened the now-defunct Alliance Blood Foundation Corp, which instead is registered as an not-for-profit organization.
However, during its three years of operations, the private Alliance Blood Foundation, was sued twice in 2014.
First, Direct Capital Corporation accused Alliance Blood of having loaned it more than $20,000 to buy a bus, with a monthly payment agreement of $974.51 for 42 months. But the blood bank failed to comply with the first payment, according to a court case filed in February 2014.
The second lawsuit was filed by three individuals — Víctor Castillo, Teresa Ramos and Augusto Castillo — against the company and its owners at that time, Beckford and his former partner Francisco García. Plaintiffs said the men sold them company shares as an alleged business opportunity and also used the money for personal matters, according to court documents. The three plaintiffs allegedly paid a total of $75,000.
This case was ultimately dismissed in January 2016 after 10 months without any motion in court and after the plaintiffs' lawyer asked to withdraw for reasons that are not clear.
The pending lawsuit from former workers against the Alliance Blood Foundation Corp. will hold its first hearing on Tuesday at the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit in downtown Miami.
Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8.