AUG 21 2017, 4:58 AM ET
by MARYAM JAMEEL
This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
Like many buildings of its vintage, the century-old headquarters of the United States General Services Administration was once lined with asbestos.
The hazardous mineral, used for fireproofing, filled nearly a half-million square feet of the building on F Street in downtown Washington. It took more than a hundred licensed workers almost a year to pry out the substance during a renovation that began in 2011. The workers would log nightly nine-hour shifts, spent mostly in air-tight spaces that reached 100 degrees.
The pay for this grueling task was dictated by the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law that promises specific wages and benefits for construction work on government buildings and infrastructure. The compensation set by the U.S. Department of Labor under the act, based on location and job duties, is often higher than what’s offered on private-sector projects.
Three workers on the GSA job who spoke to the Center for Public Integrity said their employer didn’t tell them what they were owed under the law. They and 124 others filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in 2011.
Investigators found in the workers’ favor, saying they should have earned $25.47 per hour including benefits, as skilled laborers, a specific category of employee under Davis-Bacon. Instead, their supervisors paid them $15.84 an hour and classified their work as general labor. Six years after the complaint was filed, the investigation remains open on appeal. The workers still haven’t gotten their back pay.
“You feel powerless,” said Luis Fonseca, one of the asbestos removal workers.
But in some ways, Fonseca and his former co-workers already have beaten the odds.