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No Happy Ending for Cheated Construction Crews

February 29, 2016
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – Early in the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 22, Patrick Ronayne, project manager for the ATR Consultants concrete subcontractor, promised to pay the about 20 nonunion workers who haven’t seen a check in anywhere from three weeks to two months for their work on a new building in East Harlem.

“If I don’t get it resolved today, I’m off the project,” Ronayne said. A burly man with one arm in a sling, he and an assistant were sitting in the general contractor’s temporary office on the corner, going through handwritten timesheets, watched by representatives from the Ironworkers District Council and Insulators Local 12. “You’ve got guys who are losing their homes because they haven’t gotten paid,” Ironworkers organizer Eddie Jorge told him.

Ronayne said he gave worker Leon Walker $1,500 on Feb. 11 to prevent him from getting evicted. “When you paid me that money, you owed me for three weeks,” Walker, a lanky, brown-skinned man in a lime-green vest over a gray hoodie with tattered arms, responds when he stops by. “I’m a single father with two kids.”

Walker gets a check for $2,660, to cover his last three weeks of work. As of Friday afternoon, Feb. 26, he was the only nonwhite worker on the job to get what he was owed, Jorge says. “The white guys all got paid. The black and Spanish guys didn’t.”

The job, an eight-story building at 109 East 115th St., is a morass of subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. ATR, Ronayne said, has two separate crews on it, the other run by his partner Frank. Other workers were hired as “per diem labor” through Tri-Crete, a Queens contractor. He said he couldn’t pay them directly; he had to write a check to Tri-Crete and have them pay their employees.

“We all work for ATR,” two Irish workers said, adding that Octaviano Cortes, who hadn’t gotten paid in three weeks, “comes with us.” Ronayne says he told workers to sign in as ATR, because Tri-Crete didn’t have a contract with the general contractor, All Building Construction.

“Nobody knows who the fuck works for who,” says Anthony Fagiolo of Local 12.

John Joe, a foreman for another company, told LaborPress on the phone Feb. 22 that he’d referred four workers to the job via Tri-Crete. “Pat was meant to pay Steve [Tri-Crete’s owner],” he explains, speaking with a thick Irish accent. “Steve was meant to pay the guys. But Pat hasn’t paid Steve.” He said Steve had paid the workers for one week out of his own pocket, and now wanted “to get me fuckin’ men paid and get out of this job.”

“Tri-Crete is trying to take this job, but Tri-Crete workers aren’t getting paid either,” Jorge said Feb. 25. They keep blaming each other, but they’re both doing the same thing. They’re not paying the black and Spanish workers.”

Tri-Crete did pay its white workers, he said the next morning. The All Building manager at the site told him that ATR paid Tri-Crete, he adds.

This kind of thing is “rampant throughout the city,” Jorge says, especially in buildings less than 10 stories tall in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, which are almost all nonunion jobs. The typical pay, says Fagiolo, is $18 an hour with no time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

Workers who go two weeks without getting paid face a dilemma: They can leave the job, which means never getting paid, or stick around and risk being stiffed for even more. “A lot of guys got tired of waiting and went to other jobs,” says Jorge. “They lost two weeks, but they didn’t lose two months like some of these guys.”

Some contractors have developed a business practice to exploit this, says Fagiolo, “funneling these guys in and out.” Workers who are owed money are often told there’s no more work on the job, he explains, while new ones are brought in.

Unions including the Ironworkers, the Insulators, and the Laborers monitor nonunion sites and try to fight wage theft, but “there aren’t enough of us,” says Jorge. “There really has to be some kind of standards to protect the workers.”

They plan to complain to the state Labor Department and possibly the NAACP, he says, but the Labor Department can be frustratingly slow, and it tells the contractor who made the complaint.

“Most of these guys are undocumented,” says Jorge. “They’re afraid to call the Labor Department or the Attorney General’s office.”

This, says Jorge, is one reason why the city’s building-trades unions are demanding union-scale safety and labor standards for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable-housing plan—under which most construction will be in the smaller outer-borough buildings where abuses are most common.

“With all the rezoning, we’re going to see a lot more of this,” he says. “If there’s no labor standards put on it, it’s going to be worse.”

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