The carpenters union is known for staging aggressive, long-running demonstrations against contractors over labor disputes.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
In response to the problem, the state in 2009 granted new training and collaborative powers to a “compliance team” of investigators from the departments of employment, revenue and consumer and business services as well as BOLI. The compliance team shares information to crack down on the underground economy and restore lost tax revenues. As with the union officials, Avakian says the state does not investigate whether or not the workers are undocumented. “It’s irrelevant from our standpoint,” he says. “If a worker is on the job, they are entitled to get the legal wage that they’ve earned.”
Avakian says he often hears complaints from contractors who play by the rules only to get beat out by cheaters.
Mike Salsgiver, executive director of the Oregon-Columbia branch of the Association of General Contractors, says the underground economy is “not an issue of concern to our members. We’ve put a lot of resources into making sure our members have the tools to comply with the law.”
Other contractors such as Mike Roach, president of Western Partitions, say they are extremely familiar with the problem, and sick of it. Western Partitions is a Portland-based contractor with offices in Eugene, Spokane and Seattle. A few years ago the firm had about 1,200 people working on various sites throughout the Northwest; now that’s down to about 500.
“We bid on prevailing-wage jobs and get beat by substantial dollars,” Roach says. “There’s no way they’re not cheating. If they’re not paying taxes, workers’ comp or benefits, they have a huge edge on you.Some of these people are in it for 10 bucks an hour. I was making 10 bucks an hour in the trades back in the ’70s. You just can’t compete with that.”
Most of the Latino workers Sanchez talks to on job sites around Portland are earning about $12 an hour, down from $15 a few years ago. Union apprentices in Oregon start at around $18 per hour, with benefits; with experience wages and benefits rise to over $42 per hour.