On the second day of a union protest against contractors allegedly hiring workers illegally, a local sheetrocker arrived with a different concern: Why aren’t they hiring New Haveners?
Rodney Williams, owner of Mr. Rock Drywall on Dixwell Avenue, asked that question Tuesday afternoon after stopping to chat with protestors planted at the corner of Church and Elm streets.
The job site at 205 Church St., also known as the Union and New Haven Trust Building, is one of two in town that received stop-work orders from the state Department of Labor last week.
Inspectors, acting on a tip, found that Regional Wall Systems, a Florida subcontractor doing drywall work in the building, was not keeping proper payroll records for its workers. They found similar problems down the street at 205 Elm St., where renovations to Yale’s Berkeley College are underway. Union organizers protested there on Monday.
Since March, workers at Union and New Haven Trust Building have been renovating the 11-story property to convert it into 145 apartments. Cooper Square Realty—now known as FirstService Residential—bought the building last year for $13.5 million, an investment in a revitalized downtown New Haven. It was one of a host of building projects in town—projects that raised hope for more local employment.
Renovation work continued Tuesday at the building. The labor department stopped the work of only one subcontractor there; other workers forged on.
Nancy Steffen, spokesperson for the state Department of Labor, said workers fled the site as inspectors arrived at 205 Church St. on Friday. “That’s not unusual. Often workers will do that. That typically clues us in that something is not right.”
Inspectors were able to talk to some of the workers, to learn about the payroll problems at the site, Steffen said. Workers themselves are not the focus of labor departments inspections, Steffen said. It’s the contractor’s responsibility to ensure that it’s following all labor regulations
Two organizers from the New England Regional Council of Carpenters held a large sign outside 205 Church St. Tuesday morning: “Are law-breaking contractors working here now?” Tim Sullivan, one of the organizers, said he’d like see harsher penalties for contractors who are not abiding by workplace regulations.
A lack of payroll records means authorities can’t verify that contractors are paying minimum wage, overtime, or making proper deductions, said Steffen. It also harms the local economy by preventing the collection of taxes, said Sullivan.
And it can lead to an “uneven playing field” for construction contractors. Companies that aren’t abiding by payroll laws can cut costs, giving them an unfair advantage over law-abiding operations, Steffen said.
Williams, the Dixwell sheetrocker, stopped by the protest Tuesday with a different complaint: The building owners should be hiring more local contractors.
“I’m a minority contractor in the city,” he said. “It’s hard trying to get jobs.” Meanwhile, the general contractor in the job, Klewin Construction, has its corporate headquarters in Miami, Fla. The subcontractor the labor department shut down is also from Florida.
“We right here, hungry,” Williams said. He said he’s got seven guys working for him, and could hire more if Klewin would give his company even a small piece of the drywall work in 205 Church St. “We just trying to get some scraps.”
Sullivan said the building owner had promised the city it would hire locally.
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Dana Collins, a spokesperson for building owner FirstService Residential, formerly known as Cooper Square Realty. “Is that in any kind of public record? I definitely didn’t hear that before.”
As for the stop-work order, Collins said the subcontractor would meet with the Department of Labor to resolve the payroll problems. That’s the responsibility of the general contractor, she said. “We’re just the building owner,” she said. “The contractor who hired the subcontractor is handling that.”
Contractors Are Responsible
Pren Tushaj (pictured), a 55-year-old welder working on the 205 Church job, said he agrees with the protest. He said some contractors engage in shady activities like boosting the numbers of workers they have on paper, to collect more money from the building owner.
He said that the Department of Labor should require certifications for trade work, like the Department of Transportation does for welders who work on bridges. That would force workers to “prove who [they] are,” said Turshaj, who immigrated from Albania when he was 7 years old. He said the Department of Labor should secure the work site and check the papers of every worker as they arrive.
Sullivan, however, said enforcement should focus on the contractors, not the workers: Just as when a landlord keeps renting a property to drug-dealers, you need to crack down on the landlord.
Steffen, the labor department spokesperson, said the enforcement unit is small. It typically has enough resources only to respond to tips. “I wish we had more people to go out all the time.” Asked about securing the site and checking all contractors daily, Steffen said, “There really aren’t the resources to do that.”
Steffen said the Department of Labor is focused on keeping workers safe and making sure they’re properly paid. It does that by making sure contractors are following the rules. Workers aren’t to blame for the conditions created by contractors who are skirting regulations, Steffen said. Workers may not even realize when they’re working without things like workers’ compensation protection from their employer, or they may be afraid they’ll be fired if they speak up, Steffen said.