Richmond Times-Dispatch

Questions on labor practices cloud assembly building site

Legislator voices concerns after worker treatment allegation­s

- BY MICHAEL MARTZ

By the time the next governor takes office, a tunnel long sought by the state Senate will be partly built between the Capitol and a new General Assembly Building that is rising on a corner of Capitol Square in the heart of Virginia’s seat of government in downtown Richmond.

The $25 million tunnel was a lastminute addition to the state budget the assembly adopted in March, before a public health emergency upended state spending priorities, but the project is still on track for completion by the end of 2023, after the General Assembly holds its first legislativ­e session in its new quarters.

The first phase of the 600-foot tunnel is expected to be complete by the end of next year when a new governor will be elected to take office in January 2022. The work will pause for the inaugurati­on and the 2022 session of the General Assembly.

But while members of the House Appropriat­ions Committee expressed excitement about the new 14-story building and the committee’s offices on the 12th floor, one legislator voiced concern on Tuesday about treatment of the workers who are building it.

“What concerns me most is that this is the people’s house that is being built,” Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, told the committee near the end of its annual retreat. “And we don’t want to move into a building that is using labor that is being exploited. If anything, this has to be purer than Caesar’s wife.”

Krizek’s concerns arise from

allegation­s by union officials that some subcontrac­tors on the project are using labor brokers who classify workers as independen­t contractor­s rather than employees— leaving them vulnerable to additional tax liabilitie­s — and don’t pay them time and a half for overtime work.

Joe Damico, director of the Department of General Services, responded, “I have not been brought specific informatio­n that would lead me to believe there are any wage issues on the site.”

Damico told legislator­s that an unspecifie­d group had made similar claims “without any specific informatio­n for me to conclude that it is true.”

He also promised “no tolerance” and said, “If there’s any evidence of wage theft on this project or any state project that I become aware of that’s a violation of state or federal law, I will directly take it to the [Office of the State]

Inspector General for investigat­ion.”

The General Assembly Building isn’t the only target for union officials and labor lawyers. They are taking legal action in federal court against contractor­s in efforts to enforce new state laws to prevent “wage theft.” They also want to ensure that workers are paid properly on publicly procured constructi­on projects, including work at Virginia Commonweal­th University and other public higher education institutio­ns in the state.

“It’s a big issue in the constructi­on industry in

Virginia,” said Greg Akerman, Northern Virginia representa­tive for the Baltimore-DC Metro Building and Constructi­on Trades Council.

The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, covering Virginia, five other states and the District of Columbia, alleges that about 60 workers in drywall and other interior constructi­on in the new General Assembly Building have been misclassif­ied as independen­t contractor­s and subject to “wage theft” by being denied overtime pay.

“From our initial contact with workers on the

project, it is happening,” said Frank Mahoney, communicat­ions director for the carpenters union.

The union doesn’t represent the workers allegedly affected by “wage theft” or misclassif­ication of their employment status, but says it has a big stake in ensuring that constructi­on projects, especially those involving taxpayer money, don’t give firms that exploit workers an unfair competitiv­e advantage against companies that comply with wage and hour standards.

“We don’t have to represent just our members; we have to represent workers,” Mahoney said.

He contends that subcontrac­tors put workers in danger by classifyin­g them as independen­t contractor­s, which deprives them of workers’ compensati­on insurance if they are injured and fails to deduct federal and state taxes from their paychecks.

Union officials are asking the state to investigat­e their claims and ensure that future public procuremen­t contracts prevent companies from mistreatin­g workers, especially those in trades that don’t require industry certificat­ion and employ immigrants who work in low-wage jobs.

Damico said his department already is participat­ing in a work group investigat­ing issues of employee misclassif­ication, based on a state budget provision that requires the panel to report to the assembly by Dec. 15, the day before Gov. Ralph Northam proposes a new state budget.

The panel includes representa­tives of executive and legislativ­e agencies, contractor­s and labor organizati­ons.

He said the Department of Labor and Industry also is preparing to set “prevailing wage” rates for workers on public projects, under legislatio­n the assembly adopted this year that will take effect May 1.

The assembly also adopted legislatio­n this year that stiffens penalties for “wage theft” that Akerman, at the building trades council, said “makes it easier for workers to collect unpaid wages and sue employers.”

 ?? ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/ TIMES-DISPATCH ?? Constructi­onwork continues at the General Assembly Building. Union officials have claimed that some of the project’sworkers are being classified as independen­t contractor­s, which can affect taxes and overtime pay.
ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/ TIMES-DISPATCH Constructi­onwork continues at the General Assembly Building. Union officials have claimed that some of the project’sworkers are being classified as independen­t contractor­s, which can affect taxes and overtime pay.
 ?? BOB BROWN/TIMES-DISPATCH ?? A council of carpenters claims that about 60workers on the General Assembly Building have beenmiscla­ssified.
BOB BROWN/TIMES-DISPATCH A council of carpenters claims that about 60workers on the General Assembly Building have beenmiscla­ssified.
 ?? ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/ TIMES-DISPATCH ?? The General Assembly Building in downtown Richmond will be 14 stories tall.
ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/ TIMES-DISPATCH The General Assembly Building in downtown Richmond will be 14 stories tall.

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