Juan Sanchez and Rudy Martinez of the carpenters union shake hands with a worker who received back wages from an employer.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
At the first job site Sanchez visits, a Latino worker tells him he doesn’t know who he works for, but he is happy to be earning $15 an hour. At the second site the supervisor politely denies Sanchez access. At the third site, the foreman changes his story suspiciously. First the foreman says the workers are paid by the square foot; then he says they are paid by the hour, and claims not to know how much his own workers are getting paid.
Sanchez jots down details when he returns to his vehicle: the name of the supervisor, the subcontractors on site, how long the job is expected to last, the workers he spoke with and what they said. He never asks about immigration status. “It’s not something we ever ask about,” says his colleague Evelyn Shapiro-O’Connor, who helped train Sanchez and conducts similar investigations in Seattle. “The law says the workers deserve to get paid if they do the work. That’s not an immigration issue.”
Later, Sanchez’s notes will get entered into a union database that tracks the industry. “We know about every job that’s going on,” Sanchez says as he drives from an apartment in Northwest Portland to a shopping center in Beaverton.
At each site Sanchez hands out business cards to supervisors and workers alike. “You never know what will happen to those cards,” he says. One time his card found its way to a worker who was making low wages building a new school. The worker contacted Sanchez under a false name at first, then got back to him later using his real name, and eventually went through BOLI to collect $30,000 in back wages for his crew. It turned out that the subcontractor was charging “prevailing wages” of over $40 per hour for the publicly financed job but paying workers far less.
Often acting on union tips, BOLI has conducted more than 1,000 investigations into alleged prevailing wage rate fraud since 2005, and collected more than $5.8 million in back wages. Brad Avakian, who has served as commissioner of BOLI since 2008, says most labor law violations occur within industries that employ many immigrant workers such as construction. “A lot of these folks don’t have a network of support, and it’s very easy for employers to take advantage of them,” says Avakian. “It’s a real problem, and the millions of dollars that we collect in back wages for workers proves that it’s a problem.”