OSHA fines MA contractor $1.5M for 18 violations in fatal trench collapse

April 17, 2017
Dive Brief:
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a Massachusetts contractor with 18 safety violations and fined the company $1,475,813 in relation to a Boston trench accident that killed two workers in October 2016, according to an agency press release.
  • Employees of Atlantic Drain Service Co., Robert Higgins and Kelvin Mattocks, were killed while working in a 12-foot-deep trench that collapsed and broke a fire hydrant supply line. According to OSHA investigators, the trench filled with water within seconds.
  • OSHA said Atlantic did not provide basic trench safeguards and did not train employees to recognize hazardous conditions. The company and its owner, Kevin Otto, were charged earlier this year in a Suffolk County court with two counts of manslaughter and other charges related to the worker deaths.Dive Insight:

    OSHA has reported that two workers are killed every month in trench collapses, and last November, the agency found that 2016 trench fatalities had doubled since 2015.

    Aside from Atlantic’s almost $1.5 million fine, another notable element of this case is the fact that there is a press release at all. This marks the first public “shaming” citation and penalty announcement that OSHA has posted to its news releases page since President Donald Trump took office in January. While it once actively posted releases about enforcement action to that page, it now is largely reserved for announcements of safety initiatives and partnerships. However, the agency has included certain news of enforcement actions in its QuickTakes newsletters.

    (Read More)

Portland tax breaks should require wage, employment standards, mayor says

Mayor Ethan Strimling is again proposing new requirements for companies that seek to reduce property taxes as an incentive for new development.

Posted April 14
BY RANDY BILLINGS – STAFF WRITER

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is renewing efforts to require companies that receive city tax breaks to diversify their construction crews and pay a livable wage, among other things.

The proposal would only apply to projects that receive Tax Increment Financing from the city, but not all city-funded projects, such as school renovations.

“If we’re going to give tax breaks like this, we want to make sure there’s a broad community benefit,” Strimling said. “This is the starting point for the conversation. My goal is to use taxpayer money well.”

The proposal also requires crews to be paid the wages and fringe benefits established in either the state prevailing wage law, or the city’s minimum wage law, whichever is greater.
Prevailing wages are set on an annual basis by the state Department of Labor on a county-by-county basis for state construction projects exceeding $50,000.

In 2017, prevailing wages, including fringe benefits, were around $20 an hour, ranging from $13.63 an hour for a fence-setter to $91.28 for an elevator installer, according to the DOL.

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Earning while learning: Apprenticeships build careers, communities

Delaware Voice – Gregory Furtaw & James Maravelias
Published 4:47 p.m. ET – April 5, 2017

Many communities in the state of Delaware were established with families who worked old fashioned blue collar jobs in manufacturing, construction and the trades.

We remember how these blue collar jobs offered families stability by offering individuals – most, if not all, without college degrees – middle-class wages, health insurance, and a pension. Plus, these jobs provided an extra benefit when the wages earned through these jobs stayed in the community when families shopped, ate, and supported local businesses. Finally, these jobs offered a path to a career and an opportunity to a middle-class lifestyle for several generations.

We are not being nostalgic over a time that has passed. On the contrary, the model that built local communities and lifted generations of families into the middle-class through blue collar job opportunities still exist. Although not quite as visible as in the past, there is a current demand in Delaware for skilled tradespeople in construction, industrial and commercial maintenance, and manufacturing.

Today, we must look to sustain and expand a critical component that fueled these blue collar jobs – an apprenticeship system that produces qualified, Delaware workers.

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Wage theft is widespread, but politics and policies can play a powerful role in reducing it.

Wage theft is pervasive in America; in a new study of low-wage workers across the US, Daniel J. Galvin finds that 16 percent were paid less than their state’s minimum wage. He also finds that workers in those states which had greater employment law protections tended to have a lower chance of experiencing wage theft, and that those protections tended to be in states with unified Democratic governments. With Donald Trump’s Labor Department unlikely to do much to address the problem, he writes that workers’ advocates will need to build coalitions and work with Democrats at the state and city level in order to ensure workers are protected from wage theft. 

 

Daniel J. Galvin

Wage theft is pervasive, but often remains hidden. When employers cheat employees out of the wages they’ve earned, few complain out of fear they’ll be fired, deported, or abused. Indeed, as the Trump administration has begun more aggressive deportations, immigrant workers have already become less likely to come forward.

The cases of wage theft we are able to see are either brought to light through the bravery of workers who feel they must take a stand or through Department of Labor investigations, lawsuits brought by determined attorneys general like Eric Schneiderman of New York, or painstaking efforts to root them out by innovative state labor commissioners like Julie Su in California. Journalists have helped raise awareness as well.

A New York Times exposé of the nail salon industry in New York City, for example, revealed that new employees-usually undocumented immigrants-were often required to pay $100 for the opportunity to work, forced to “train” for weeks without pay, and were then paid as little as $30 a day for 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, all in violation of federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws.

Almost everything else we know about the problem comes from academic investigations. The most widely cited study, conducted back in 2008, surveyed 4,387 hard-to-reach low-wage workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week, with 60 percent underpaid by more than $1 per hour. More than three quarters of those who worked over 40 hours did not receive any overtime pay.

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Workers urge Legislature to stop wage theft

By Barb Kucera, Workday Minnesota
March 2, 2017

ST. PAUL – Workers who have lost thousands of dollars to wage theft descended on the state Capitol Thursday to urge lawmakers to beef up enforcement against employers who break the law.

With only about a week left for the Legislature to hear policy bills, anti-wage theft legislation has yet to have a hearing. The measure would give the state Department of Labor and Industry more enforcement tools and an increased budget to hire four additional wage and hour investigators to do proactive outreach across the state. It would empower workers with more information and impose stiffer penalties for violators.

An investigation by Workday Minnesota has found wage theft in Minnesota is larger and more widespread than most people realize – and the problem is growing. The Department of Labor and Industry estimates that 39,000 Minnesota workers suffer from wage theft each year, resulting in $11.9 million in wages owed, and that’s only what goes reported. Wage theft occurs when:

  • Employers refuse to pay their employees for work performed
  • Employers violate minimum wage, prevailing wage, and overtime protections
  • Employers make unlawful paycheck deductions
  • Employers coerce employees to work off the clock
  • Employers misclassify employees as an independent contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance

 

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Diversity in the New York City union and nonunion construction sectors

Press Releases • March 2, 2017

A new report by EPI President Lawrence Mishel finds that New York City’s union construction sector has become significantly more racially diverse in the past two decades and that union construction workers earn substantially more than nonunion construction workers, leading to an increased economic benefit for black and Hispanic communities.

Using newly developed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics to analyze the racial composition of blue-collar union and nonunion construction employment, Mishel finds in Diversity in the NYC construction union and nonunion sectors that New York City’s union construction sector employs a greater share of black workers than the nonunion construction sector. In 2014, black workers accounted for 21.2 percent of employment in union construction, versus 15.8 percent in nonunion construction.

Unions have also drawn more black and Hispanic workers into construction through apprenticeship programs funded jointly by unions and construction contractors, which provide wages and benefits to workers while they learn job-related skills. The share of union apprentices that are people of color was over 60 percent in 2014, more than double the share in 1994.

Hispanic and black workers in construction unions earn 34.5 percent and 36.1 percent more than nonunion Hispanic and black construction workers, respectively. Because black workers have a greater presence in the union construction sector and are paid far more, collective bargaining in New York City greatly boosts overall annual wages to the black community from construction by $152 million each year.

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(Press Release)

Forum: Prevailing wage protects the construction industry and Connecticut’s economy

By Roland Lemar
POSTED: 02/26/17, 8:57 PM EST

There have been numerous legislative proposals introduced this year to alter the thresholds that trigger when the Connecticut’s prevailing wage law is applied to public works construction projects. Connecticut’s current threshold is $400,000 for new construction and $100,000 for renovation. That means that a public project must cost that amount for the prevailing wage law to apply.

If a project falls below that threshold, then workers only have to be paid the minimum wage rather than the family-sustaining prevailing wage. Connecticut currently has the second-highest thresholds in the country, and the highest by far in New England.

Those that have proposed an increase to the prevailing wage thresholds have indicated that their proposals will alleviate budgetary constraints on our municipalities. I do not believe that is the case. Further weakening of our state’s prevailing wage law will do just the opposite, and will further eliminate the kind of fair-paying, middle-class jobs that we should try to keep and grow in our state.

Two economics professors at the University of Utah, Peter Phillips and Cihan Bilingsoy, conducted a study in 2010, titled “Impact of Prevailing Wages on the Economy and Communities of Connecticut,” which found that repeal of the prevailing wage law would result in the loss of $21.6 million in income tax revenue. Other studies have shown that every dollar spent on a prevailing wage project generates a $1.50 in economic activity – that’s money spent at local businesses such as restaurants and auto body shops. Prevailing wages keep workers off public assistance and allow them to contribute to our local economies – which is a good investment for our state.

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Prevailing Wage Violation Leads to $255,000 Settlement With Attorney General

02/13/2017
By: Jonathon Sizemore

A contractor and a developer are to pay $255,000 for violating the New York False Claims Act and not paying workers a prevailing wage. On February 9, 2017, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a settlement agreement with a New York City-based general contractor and a developer for failing to pay a prevailing wage to workers at their public works project.

The contractor, A. Aleem Construction Inc., and the developer, West 131st Street Development Corp., were both participants in the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program of the Department of Housing Preservations and Development. The program was intended to enable neighborhood-based private property managers to own and manage clusters of occupied and vacant city-owned buildings. Buildings selected for the program are sold to the Neighborhood Partnership Housing Development Fund Corporation and then leased to the participants. The participants then oversee the rehabilitation and design of the buildings with general contractors. The program is partially funded with federal money.

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OP-ED: Wage theft is preventable

February 28, 2017, 05:00 AM
By Rick Bonilla

Many flaws ultimately doomed President Trump’s labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, but among the most serious were allegations that his own companies had failed to comply with the very same wage laws that the Labor Department is responsible for enforcing. In Puzder’s case, the issue was that his fast food companies had failed to pay workers for all the hours they had worked, including overtime.

This is called wage theft and it’s much more common and widespread than you probably think.

It also impacts far more than just workers. When businesses steal workers’ wages, they gain a competitive advantage over honest businesses that play by the rules. And, when wages are stolen, so are required payroll and income taxes that are used to fund all types of public services – services on which every taxpayer relies.

In California, wage theft costs taxpayers about $8.5 billion every year, according to the Franchise Tax Board. About 10 percent of that comes from the construction industry, where I’ve worked for much of my career.

While there are state and federal agencies tasked with enforcing labor laws – the reality is that just a fraction of the employers who cheat their workers are ever brought to justice. Many workers who are victimized never file claims. Amongst those who do and receive judgments, only about 20 percent are ever paid. Such dismal enforcement statistics really only encourage more lawbreaking.

In a construction context, it works like this. A builder or general contractor hires subcontractors to do much of the work on a project. If one of the subcontractors cheats his workers, the lead contractor or builder can legally deny having any responsibility. President Trump has done this on his own projects.

Subcontractors can then disappear, shut down, shift assets to a relative, or reform under a different name to avoid payment. And then the cycle repeats.

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