A “fat cat” in a plush three-piece suit dangled and strangled a working guy in a yellow construction helmet on Grand Avenue the other day.
The cat and worker were 15-foot-tall cartoon characters full of compressed air and bobbing in the breeze. But the display was no joke no joke. The blow-up figures were deployed Thursday afternoon by members and supporters of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters (NERCC) in support of Terail Slaughter, a non-union carpenter who had been employed helping to build the tower buildings of the Housing Authority of New Haven’s Farnam Court Townhouses rebuilding project.
About a dozen carpenters and their supporters were on the corner of Grand Avenue and Hamilton Street for two purposes, according to lead organizer Ernest Pagan: to support a wage theft complaint, and to encourage other workers to step forward and make similar complaints when necessary.
Slaughter has lodged an $18,000 wage theft complaint against Palmucci Rivera Construction Concepts (PRCC), a carpentry subcontractor managed by Haynes Construction. The Seymour-based company is a general contractor on the $42 million redevelopment project of the 75-year-old troubled housing complex.
The complaint, which was filed with the state Department of Labor in mid-summer, documents that Slaughter, a nine-year veteran carpenter who had also been a starting guard at Wilbur Cross, was paid $14 an hour. The “prevailing wage” — that is, the nationally mandated wage for a carpenter in Connecticut working on a publicly funded project, is $56 an hour.
Slaughter began work in January 2016. In April he met Pagan, who had come to fact-find and organize. Pagan urged Slaughter to ask for a more appropriate salary. Slaughter eventually took the advice, and PRCC, without acknowledging wrongdoing, raised his hourly wage to $46.
That, however, is the prevailing wage for a laborer, not for a carpenter. This alerted Pagan that, in addition to theft of wages directly, PRCC’s move was misclassifying Slaughter into a lower-paying category than he deserved.
When Slaughter informed Pagan of the change, Pagan said if he took it, he would eventually be fired.
Slaughter stayed with the $46 hourly wage for three months. He had never been paid so much, and as a husband and father of two little kids, he needed the money.
Yet in July, he contacted Pagan to file his complaint. He felt if the law mandated $56 and he was being paid less, that too was not right. The union calculated that Slaughter was owed $18,000. Pagan and the NERCC helped Slaughter gather notes, pay stubs, and documentation for the complaint.
Pagan’s prediction came true. Slaughter was fired soon after. “They terminated me for ‘lack of work,’ Slaughter recalled. “The next day they hired someone else.”
The complaint, filed on July 13, is pending now in Hartford at the Department of Labor. Senior NERCC organizer for New England Ted Duarte, who was also on Grand Avenue along with Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg and activist John Lugo, said he was absolutely certain in the end Slaughter would prevail.
But Pagan said the practice of underpaying, especially through wage theft and misclassifying skilled workers as less skilled, is widespread.
Lou Rivera of PRCC Responds
(Update) Native Fair Havener and contractor Lou Rivera — the owner of the 12-employee PRCC, which employed Terail Slaughter — was reached after initial publication of the story. He offered the following statement, asserting that there was no wage theft on the part of PRCC and that he’s interested in helping to lift people up.
“Terail Slaughter worked for PRCC for two years,” Rivera said. “He’s a great kid. Haynes took the contract with the prevailing rate and submitted it to the contractors like us. We only followed what they gave us.
“Haynes is trying to put the blame on a small minority like PRCC. PRCC is the only sub hiring within the community and hiring local minority workers. As a small minority owned company in the New Haven area, it’s not advantageous for PRCC to be made a scapegoat for this project.
“We gave Haynes a great deal because we offered to build the elements of the project off site. The prevailing off site rate was $14.
“When we stepped our foot onto Farnam, on Grand Avenue, Terail is automatically converted to a prevailing laborer rate that was given to us in the contract, because he’s not acting as a carpenter there, on the site. He got the prevailing rate as a laborer. He swept, he threw out wood, and did other tasks; he was not acting as carpenter.”
Rivera said PRCC is about five years old and the firm is committed to giving back to New Haven, especially the Fair Haven community.
The second reason to deploy the fat cat strangling the carpenter balloon, Pagan said, was “to call attention to his example” and hope other guys come forward. “My goal is to expose all fraudulent contractors who come to my city and exploit our workers and residents.”
The Independent asked Haynes Construction Company for a comment, but did not receive one before press time.
Duarte said that before the NERCC went public with its charges, it too asked Haynes for a comment, and they provided none.
The redevelopment project’s owner, Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH), however, said they were aware of the complaint. HANH CEO Karen DuBois-Walton wrote in an email: “We have made efforts to interview this complainant. We support fully any investigation by the DOL. We have reviewed the matter with Haynes Construction — the prime contractor. While the resolution is being decided, Haynes Construction has taken steps to ensure that any restitution that is necessary can be made. This occurs through a withholding of payments to the subcontractor being investigated to ensure that funds are available to pay an aggrieved worker.”
DuBois-Walton also said its contractors are vetted by the City’s Commission on Equal Opportunity (CEO) and that involves visits to the sites. “Any inconsistencies or discrepancies are fully investigated and reported. Where warranted, violations are reported to the State DOL and/or HUD,” she said.
Nevertheless, Pagan and Duarte say the illegal practices are widespread. Duarte suggested that many of the score of other carpenters working on the Farnam project might have immigration issues or just want to keep working at whatever rate they are currently being paid.
“I want other guys who this is happening to to speak up like Terail and let them know the carpenters will stand with them,” said Pagan.
Duarte was absolutely certain that the state DOL would investigate and more. Slaughter “was strong enough to stand up for himself,” Duarte said. “That triggers an audit of payroll by DOL for misclassification. The problem — wage theft and misclassification — is widespread. These jobs are supposed to be careers, to feed a family. It’s not supposed to be a dead end. Others will be beneficiaries of this guy’s courage.”
In July, when he was terminated, Slaughter said he took up care of his 10-month-old and a seven-year-old, with fortuitous timing. His wife, a DCF staffer, was going back to work. Slaughter hopes to go back to work as soon as he can because it’s a struggle, he said, to pay all the bills.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he added.