Three independent contractors' deaths at Thanksgiving Tower are the subject of legal action, but the families of the three men will receive no compensation for their deaths. Byron Harris has more on the "invisible workers."
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DALLAS – First, they suffocated. Then they burned.
It was in the bowels of the 50-story Thanksgiving Tower on Dec. 11, 2014. The tower was evacuated as smoke spilled onto floor B2 of the parking garage below the building. Office workers spilled into the street and mingled with fire engines.
Then, as shown in surveillance video obtained by WFAA under the Texas Public Information Act, a plume of flame shot through a wall into the garage.
Four stories below the visible flame, three men were at its source: Oscar Esparza, 36, Luis Carrillo, 43, and Nicacio Carrillo, 60.
They were in a rectangular cinder block room, which served as a water reservoir for the building's air conditioning system. Using a welding torch in the enclosed space, they'd been told to remove metal plates that held up a plastic liner.
They had no breathing apparatus. No safety equipment. There was only one way out of the cavern -- an electric hoist up through a small hole nearly 40 feet up.
"The room fills with smoke," said Carmen Mitchell, an attorney for Luis Carillo's family. "They're desperately trying to find a way to get out of the confined space. The electricity gets fried, so they can't get out that way. They get blinded by the smoke and succumb to it."
In their clamor to locate a chain that hung in the cavern, they left claw marks on the soot-covered walls.
Among them, the three men leave behind a dozen children and three widows.
Although their deaths are the subject of legal action, as it now stands, the families of the three men will receive no compensation for their deaths.
Oscar Esparza, Luis Carrillo, and Nicacio Carillo are, in essence, invisible workers.
Although they were little more than laborers, the State of Texas allows them to be called "independent contractors." That means they can get no workers compensation, and have no federal income tax or Social Security tax deducted from their paychecks.
Many independent contractors in the construction industry receive no paychecks at all, only cash at the end of a work week.
"A quote, 'independent contractor' works for wages," said Domingo Garcia, an attorney for Oscar Esparza and Nicacio Carrillo. "He's told what to do, when to report for work. [He's] an employee under any condition. But construction companies continuously mis-classify them in order to avoid liability."
Invisible workers cost an estimated $1 billion a year in unpaid federal taxes, and hundreds of millions more in unpaid Social Security taxes and hospital bills for accidents, according to a joint study done by the Workers' Defense Project and the University of Texas.
Invisible workers are at the bottom rung of a ladder of denied responsibility, critics say.
In the case of Thanksgiving Tower, at the top of the ladder would be the investors who own the property. Below that would be the property manager, Lincoln Properties. Best Mechanical, Inc., was hired to work on the air conditioning system. Best Mechanical hired Texas HVAC Installers to do the work in the large water tank.
"There is no workers compensation," Domingo Garcia said. "There is no insurance. Everybody's denying they're at fault. The contractor says [it's] the sub [contractor] going down. And then they say, 'He's an independent contractor,' and everybody washes their hands."
Critics say the businesses at the top of the invisible worker ladder reap profits because they pay their workers less.
Best Mechanical, which hired the independent contractors at Thanksgiving Tower, declined to comment for this story.
The corporate headquarters of Texas HVAC Installers turns out to be a small house in Balch Springs. The CEO is Guillermo Salas. He declined to talk to News 8 on camera.
"He's a guy that's trying to make a living," attorney Carmen Mitchell said. "And so somebody knows somebody. And they call him and say, 'Hey, we need a crew over here to do this work.' And he needs work. And his people need work."
Oscar Esparza died as an independent contractor for Texas HVAC. He'd worked for them before.
An IRS 1099 for 2013 shows he earned $32,047 from Texas HVAC that year. No federal taxes were deducted from his wags. No Social Security. No workman's compensation.
Domingo Garcia said he sees cases like this "daily, weekly. It happens all the time."
Not only did Texas HVAC and Guillermo Salas not pay taxes for Oscar Esparza, Salas apparently hasn't paid his own taxes.
A lien filed in the Dallas County deed records shows he and his wife owe $55,414 to the IRS from 2003. When News 8 tried to talk to Salas, he declined to answer questions about his taxes.
"Typically, you think of a subcontractor as a real business," Mitchell said. "But that's not what this is. It's a guy with a cell phone and a pickup truck and a labor force."