Workers and activists from local workers’ rights organizations paid a surprise visit to housing development construction sites at The Parc at Medfield and Modera Natick Central in Melrose, Massachusetts Friday morning, demanding $42,000 in unpaid wages. This crew of workers continues to work at these two sites and were employed by Allstate Interiors, a subcontractor hired by Dellbrook Construction and Mill Creek Residential.
They called on Dellbrook and Mill Creek to pay workers their unpaid wages.
This is the third time Fuerza Laboral, in concert with two Massachusetts based workers rights groups, Metrowest Worker Center and the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative, have confronted worksites about the wage theft issue. (RI Future covered those visits in April and August.)
“This group of workers made a verbal agreement with Allstate to be paid $25/hr for drywall workers and $15/hr for laborers. Every week, they would submit invoices for this hourly rate,” said Phoebe Gardner, an organizer at Fuerza. “However, Allstate would send back pay checks and purchase orders that didn’t match up with the invoices but instead were by piecemeal and were consistently less than their agreed upon rate. In total, Allstate underpaid the workers $42,333.”
The workers first descended on The Parc at Medfield, a Dellbrook Construction. A delegation of about 20 workers and activists spoke to reps from Dellbrook, “to hold them responsible for the payments that Allstate refuses to make good on.”
According to Gardner, “Dellbrook was somewhat ‘diplomatic’ and promised to consider withholding further payment from Allstate until Allstate paid its workers if we can present sufficient proof that Allstate owes the money.” Allstate denies owing money and claims that they’ve paid workers in full. There is no written contract with the workers.
Dellbrook claimed that this was the first they were hearing about this issue, says Gardner, which she maintains is not true because workers had approached the company about this problem back in August, at which point Allstate foreman Willie Cerna paid a portion of what was due. Dellbrook also refused to acknowledge any other problems at their sites and declined to listen to advice on how to better treat workers in the future.
“When leaving the site,” says Gardner, “we noticed a truck belonging to Olympic Painting and Roofing, infamous for a long history of documented wage theft.”
The second stop was at Modera Natick Central a development of Mill Creek Residential. Here the reception was “hostile,” according to Gardner.
“When we entered their trailer, they told us that they would talk with us if we just stepped outside. As soon as we did so, they ran behind us and shut and locked the trailer door. When I tried to put my foot out to block them from closing the door, one Mill Creek rep pushed me out of the way. The police came almost immediately and kicked us off the property but agreed to deliver the letter we had for Mill Creek.
“Allstate crews were working on the work site while we were there. Willie Cerna was also on the site, who acted as if he didn’t know about the issue and ‘promised’ to review the workers’ invoices again. This is ridiculous because workers and our organizations have been trying to recover this money from Allstate for almost a year now.”
Gardner further referred me to this MetroWest Daily News article.
“Violations like this at local job sites are an ugly symptom of a trend that has swept our state and country,” says Fuerza Laboral in a press release. “The increasing use and misuse of subcontracting and outsourcing is a major contributor to the low wages and unsafe working conditions in our economy today. While sometimes these practices reflect more efficient ways of doing business, too often they are the result of explicit employer strategies to evade labor laws and erode worker protections.
“Legal processes for holding small subcontractors accountable to complying with labor law are often long and ultimately unsuccessful in recovering wages or ensuring safe working conditions. Small subcontractors can easily change names or leave the state. Many builders use contractors and subcontractors that are based out of state to begin with, which means workers would have to travel out of state and deal with out of state agencies to recover their wages.
“Even if the court or the state decides that the subcontractor owes workers money, it can be hard to recover if the subcontractor moves or has no assets. When workers have tried to bring these labor rights violations to the general contractor, they are told that the general contractor is not responsible because the workers are not direct employees.
“Workers are prepared to lien these two apartment complexes if Dellbrook and Mill Creek do not pay immediately. ‘We want justice,’ says Edwin Rosales, who worked under Allstate at the Medfield and Natick sites. ‘Our messafe to Dellbrook and Mill Creek is that it’s your property, you have to be responsible. We need to make owners of properties liable for workers’ justice. Allstate is not taking responsible and someone has to. Pay or lien!’
“Labor law needs to be updated to reflect the increased use of subcontracting to ensure that workers are protected. Community Labor United and its partners have filed state legislation in Massachusetts, entitled An Act to Prevent Wage Theft and Promote Employer Accountability, which seeks to update the law and build more worker protections into subcontracted work. While this legislation is pending, it is up to workers and advocates to put pressure on contractors to ensure they are doing business in a responsible manner and abiding by labor law.”