Wage Theft Still Rampant in DC Construction

Readers of this blog will recall how a Catholic Labor Network organizer visiting DC construction sites documented an extensive underground economy in the District’s construction market, one marked by substantial wage theft. We found that a system of labor brokers had emerged as middlemen between construction workers and contractors in several trades. These brokers would supply labor to drywall, plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors, but pay the workers as if they were independent contractors – denying them overtime pay and failing to pay their social security taxes or workers’ compensation premiums. The Catholic Labor Network generated a major report on the phenomenon. It won’t surprise readers to hear that the victims of these scams are usually recent immigrants, often undocumented ones.

Unfortunately, industry conditions remain fraught. Organizers for the area’s construction labor unions regularly leaflet nonunion construction sites with handbills in English and Spanish counseling workers about their rights. Attention is currently focused on a major redevelopment project in the District of Columbia building once occupied by Fannie Mae, where a wage theft scandal drew coverage in the Washington Hispanic.

On this project, dozens of plumbers and sheet metal workers working for WG Welch through a labor broker told organizers they hadn’t been paid in over a month. Union organizers helped the workers prepare a collective demand for payment from WG Welch and the site’s general contractor, Whiting-Turner. (Under DC law, both are liable when a subcontractor or labor broker fails to pay their workers in a timely manner.) This secured some relief – some workers were paid straight time for the hours owed, but none received either the overtime pay or damages they are entitled to under the law. Construction union representatives are consulting with the workers about possible further legal action.

Watch this space for additional developments.