Guest columnist Tom Juravich: Amherst needs to protect workers from wage theft

  • Amherst Town Hall

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Amherst needs to pass a wage-theft ordinance. Because what happened in Amherst last year never should have never happened and should never happen again.

Nine undocumented Honduran workers worked in Amherst 10 hours a day, six days a week for five weeks in a row. Collectively they were owed $50,173 for their labor — but they did not receive one penny in wages.

These were not workers in the agricultural fields of the Valley or in one of the local restaurants where wage theft routinely takes place. These were construction workers hanging drywall at the North Square Apartments, the marquis project in North Amherst built by the socially-conscious Beacon Properties with over $2.5 million in tax breaks provided by the town of Amherst. Despite Beacon’s commitment to building affordable housing, their progressive social values did not guide the way the development was built.

Over the past year, I have been working with the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (NASRCC) to study wage theft in residential construction in New England. As part of this project, I have conducted over 45 in-depth interviews, including a dozen with workers and union staff in Amherst. I also reviewed corporate and legal information about the Amherst project. While I have documented how common wage theft has become across the Northeast, nothing compares to what happened in Amherst.

Beacon properties hired Keith Construction as the general contractor, who awarded Combat Drywall the contract to hang the sheet rock. Combat, however, has no employees to perform the work and subcontracted the work to Alvarez drywall. Alvarez is not registered with the Secretary of State in Massachusetts as a business, has no website, no phone number and no real company identity. He has no direct employees, but acts as a labor-broker bringing undocumented workers to the job who work as independent contractors. He would pay them in cash.

Week after week, Alvarez promised to pay, but after five weeks of grueling work, several workers reached out to Frank Gomez, an organizer with the Carpenters Union. For a number of years NASRCC has employed organizers like Gomez who work full time assisting nonunion workers facing wage theft. Gomez had helped other workers to get back wages from Combat, who he calls “a repeat offender.”

Beacon’s President Joshua Cohen was aware of this situation, but refused to intervene. On July 28, 2019 Gomez filed a wage complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office on behalf of the Combat workers.

Months went by and these incredibly vulnerable workers had still not received any payment for hanging approximately one half of the drywall at North Square. They borrowed money from family and friends. One worker told me how he had to ask for money back that he had sent to family in Honduras. Other borrowed from loan sharks.

It took 10 months for the attorney general to act on this case. On April 16, 2020, the office issued citations for violation of Massachusetts labor law to both Combat and Alvarez. The nine Combat workers will potentially receive only $23,977.85 — less than one half of what they were owed for the work they performed.

The civil penalties assessed against the firms were minuscule. A $2,000 penalty for Combat was little more than a slap on the hand, and the $17,500 the AG assessed Alvarez can be more than covered by the money he stole from workers.

The workers in Amherst were fortunate to have the Carpenters Union advocate for them. And even though the attorney general acted on their case, it indicates just how broken the regulatory structure is at the state level. Workers had to wait for 10 months to receive less than 50% of their wages. And in no way do these very small penalties deter employers like Combat and Alvarez, or others like them, from repeating the illegal practices used at North Square.

Under current regulation, Beacon Communities was never held responsible for this illegal and immoral activity. Only in the past few weeks, the Gazette has reported that Beacon’s Cohen indicated that “We are prepared to make up the difference” in workers’ wages.

While the workers will be overjoyed to receive what is rightfully owed them, it shouldn’t take bad publicity to shame a developer to do the right thing. It should be part of the bylaws that govern what happens in our community, which is why we need to support the proposed anti-wage theft ordinance in Amherst. We must ensure that no workers toiling in our community will ever again have to face what the workers at North Square had to experience.

Tom Juravich is a professor of Labor Studies and Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.