For five years, Darrin Boyce worked as a non-union sheet metal worker for one of the highest paid construction firms in Oregon. But while he was busy working on construction sites, he says his employer was working behind his back to deny him wages he was entitled to.
Forged timesheets. Threats of retaliation. Incorrect hourly rates. Boyce says he’s seen it all, and Oregon’s most vulnerable workers are paying the price. Today, he’s a union organizer who uses his personal experience as a wage theft victim to help other workers know their rights.
“Now as an organizer, I unfortunately come across things that happened to me 10 years ago,” Boyce said. “Wage theft happened to me because I was not aware of my rights and I had a fear of retaliation.”
Boyce was among a coalition of labor organizers and leaders, researchers and workers who briefed the Board of County Commissioners on April 9 about the largely hidden problem of wage theft that nonetheless occurs at construction sites throughout the state.
“It is very clear that wage theft is indeed theft,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “This has such huge implications beyond the individual and impacts our entire community.”
Wage theft costs billions annually, hits vulnerable workers the hardest
According to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, the construction industry has the second highest number of wage claims as a share of its workforce behind the transportation industry. Wage theft in construction alone results in $2.6 billion annually in lost revenue for state and federal treasuries.
Chair Deborah Kafoury requested a public informational briefing after the coalition brought concerns to her. Wage theft happens when an employer denies a worker the wages or benefits they’ve earned.. Sometimes wage theft is unintentional, like a simple calculation error. But other times, the wage theft is intentional and includes underpaying or not paying workers, misclassifying workers, or making illegal deductions.
Sandra Amalo, the interim executive director for Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, said the workers hit hardest by wage theft are day laborers and immigrants. Her organization helps advocate for workers and reclaim lost wages.
“Since 2000, Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project has been a tireless advocate for day laborers in ending the practice of wage theft,” Amalo said. “Through Voz’s legal wage claim team, we’ve been able to recover $350,000 in stolen wages.”
“All contractors should play by the same rules.”
Marcus Rodriguez is an organizer for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. He said he remembers tagging along with his father on residential jobs before entering the construction industry working for drywall companies.
In the Latino community, Rodriguez said, workers are often exploited by contractors through misclassifying them, making them work as independent contractors, not paying them correctly, or simply not paying them at all. But it is not just an issue in private projects.
In May 2017, Rodriguez and his colleagues investigated the payroll records of a contractor working on a public project. They found that the contractor was incorrectly labelling carpenters as laborers, who are paid less per hour, and then pocketing the difference.
Rodriguez’s team reported their findings to the Bureau of Labor and Industries. In March 2019, BOLI issued findings against the contractor, concluding that they violated regulations and failed to properly pay workers. The contractor was forced to pay 34 workers $100,000 in unpaid wages.
“Some may say that this is a union versus non-union issue and that the government shouldn’t be picking sides,” Rodriguez said. “I am here to tell you that this is not how we see it. If all contractors play by the same rules, we should be able to compete on our ability to get the job done efficiently and up to the expectations of our communities.”
State and local governments cracking down on wage theft
During the 2019 legislative session, the Oregon State Legislature is also expected to consider laws that will prohibit employers from incorrectly classifying employees as “independent contractors.” Another bill would increase civil penalties for wage theft and require more contractors to financially guarantee wages by posting wage bonds.
In Multnomah County, the Central Courthouse project, and the recently completed Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters have required thousands of construction hours. The County Board set ambitious goals to provide opportunities for apprentices and minority, women, service-disabled veterans and emerging small businesses. Multnomah County also requires that all public works projects to pay prevailing wage, the guaranteed minimum hourly rates for skilled workers, on its projects.
Despite all those initiatives, Chair Deborah Kafoury called for stronger, real time monitoring of wage theft on construction sites.
“There’s already a lot of work going on,” Chair Kafoury said. “We just need to make sure all these dots are connected and these workers are protected.”