At an upscale Pearl District apartment project, a union blows the whistle on wage theft

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

The U.S. Labor Department is investigating prevailing wage violations at four Portland-area construction projects that received loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That government help came with conditions: The apartments must be affordable for moderate-income families or the elderly or handicapped, and construction workers must be paid local prevailing wage rates as determined by government surveys.

But an investigation by Painters District Council 5 found that a painting subcontractor at the Parker Apartments construction project paid workers as little as half the amount they were entitled to. Workers who complained about the violation were let go.

Undercover probe
The story begins in March, when Painters union organizer Roman Ramos asked out-of-work union member Marcos Jimenez to go undercover as a painter at the Parker Apartments – a six-story 177-unit apartment building under construction in the Pearl District – and report back any illegal practices he found.

The Parker is named after the toddler son of Bob Ball, a prominent developer who ran for Portland mayor in 2008. To build it, Ball teamed up with Eugene developers Don Woolley and Tom Connor, and with a HUD loan guarantee, they obtained a $35.7 million loan from CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm.

Painters District Council 5 has been investigating HUD-sponsored construction projects in the Pacific Northwest, starting in Seattle, says organizing director Jeff Kelley. The goal is to clean up the industry, making it harder for companies to win contracts by cheating workers out of wages.

“Every project we’ve looked at in Washington and Oregon has had issues,” Kelley said. And the biggest issue has been violations of the prevailing wage law, known as Davis-Bacon.

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