Protest supports construction workers who say they were not paid

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More than two dozen construction workers, family members and supporters staged a protest early Tuesday to support five carpenters who say they weren’t paid more than $4,000 in wages.

Carrying signs emblazoned in red and crying “Excuses Don’t Feed My Family,” the demonstrators stood at the work site of Buckeye Trail Commons, a $31 million federally funded multifamily housing project under construction by general contractor Siltek Group of Florida. A subcontractor on the job did not pay the workers, demonstrators said.

“We just want justice,” said Luis Lopez, 33, a Dallas carpenter who claimed he was not paid for two weeks of work early this year. “By holding this protest, we hope to bring this issue to light and try to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people.”

Many construction contracts do not hold a general contractor liable when a subcontractor fails to pay. But Siltek’s practice is to compensate the workers of its subcontractors to meet federal prevailing-wage laws, Siltek Vice President Rene Sierra said in a phone interview.

“We work with the U.S. Department of Labor to make sure workers are paid” and treated equitably, Sierra said.

In this case, the five carpenters were hired by a subcontractor of another subcontractor of Siltek, workers said. Siltek has no record of that subcontractor, known as “Juan C. Castillo.” Nor does the Dallas Housing Authority, which is overseeing the project, according to a previous Star-Telegram report.

“Without the workers being able to show me any paperwork [from the job site], I can’t help them,” Sierra said. “I want to help them. … I’d rather pay them the $4,000 if they worked for me, but they are not my employees.”

Because no paper trail links the subcontractor to the federal job, getting the workers their pay becomes increasingly difficult, according to officials at the Workers Defense Project, an advocacy group in Dallas that is trying to obtain restitution.

Labor advocates say payroll problems on construction projects have become widespread and came to the attention of the Texas Legislature.

To curb abuses, a new Texas law this year imposes a $200 penalty on construction companies for each worker found to be misclassified as an independent contractor. The classification also allows construction companies to circumvent tax obligations. The Texas Workforce Commission is working on enforcement details of the new law.

Texas has almost 1 million construction workers, according to the 2010 Census. Of those, 225,000 are employed in Dallas and are vulnerable to various forms of payroll fraud, said Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, an organizer with the Workers Defense Project.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard

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