Save money, live better? People building Wal-Mart say they just want to get paid 

On Dec. 18 of last year, Damien McInnis looked at the empty space under his family’s Christmas tree and worried. “There was nothing,” says the father of six.

McInnis owns Picasso Brothers Painting, in Missoula. He’s a big guy with gray hair, blue eyes and a tidy goatee. On a brisk Friday afternoon, he’s quick to crack a joke from behind a desk in his Inez Street office.

When he was a kid in Toledo, Ohio, McInnis wanted to be a rock guitarist. Today, he’s still serious about his guitar playing but his priorities have changed: He’s responsible for a family and up to 15 employees. He studies marketing strategies and customer service. Growth plans are charted in black ink on a wall-sized whiteboard across from his cluttered desk. The work has paid off, he says proudly. Last year, Picasso Brothers sales topped $305,000—its biggest year yet.

McInnis grew excited in 2010 when Wal-Mart and the Idaho-based general contractor Engineered Structures hired Picasso Brothers, along with 103 other subcontractors, to work on a yearlong store expansion and renovation of the retailer’s Highway 93 South Supercenter, in Missoula.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Though McInnis was still working on the project, payments to Picasso Brothers stopped in July of 2011. McInnis recalls that an Engineered Structures project manager told him that payment was just around the corner, but, says McInnis, “One week would lead into the next week would lead into the next…and it never materialized.”

In October, McInnis filed a $50,348 mechanic’s lien on Wal-Mart’s Highway 93 South property. The lien lets subcontractors such as McInnis claim a portion of a landowner’s property.

In the more than two decades McInnis has done business in Missoula, he says, he never before had to file a lien on a job.

He joined a growing club: McInnis is one of 11 subcontractors and suppliers who have filed liens against Wal-Mart in Missoula County in the last year.

McInnis says he had to file the lien; he was tens of thousands of dollars short of where he’d expected his business to be heading into winter, a time when tradespeople like him like to have some money salted away, and he couldn’t pay his employees. He turned down another job because he couldn’t afford to buy supplies, he says. “Every day that went by,” he says, “things got worse.”

On Dec. 19, Engineered Structures offered to settle with McInnis. The company said it would pay him $14,300, rather than the $50,000 McInnis says Picasso Brothers was owed.

McInnis took the money.

“They just wave it in front of your face,” he says. “Because they’re cash-strong, their position is strong. They could wait another six months to pay me…I needed to pay bills. I wanted to give a Christmas to my kids.”

McInnis’s story is similar to that of dozens and perhaps hundreds of subcontractors and suppliers across the country. Tradespeople from Missoula to Kalispell and California to New York—most of whom have worked under different general contractors—say Wal-Mart is notoriously bad about paying the people who build and renovate its stores.

click to enlarge Gary Linton of GTL Excavating, in Missoula, says Wal-Mart and its general contractor, Engineered Structures, took advantage of him and other area subcontractors. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Gary Linton of GTL Excavating, in Missoula, says Wal-Mart and its general contractor, Engineered Structures, took advantage of him and other area subcontractors.

“The only way to describe them is ruthless,” says Herb Lande, who owns Imperial Construction Associates in Joliet, Ill. Lande says he waited almost two years to get paid $70,000 he was owed by Wal-Mart and is still waiting for payment for another job for the giant retailer.

“I do Costco all the time, and Costcos are amazing,” he says. “They treat their employees well. And Targets are good…Everyone’s got a better track record than Wal-Mart, everybody.”

‘It’s not unusual’

A woman wearing a blue bandanna loads bottles of a red sports drink into a minivan parked in front of Wal-Mart’s Highway 93 South store on a recent sunny Saturday morning as Wal-Mart greeters stand at the front door. “Good morning!” say the women in blue vests. “Welcome to Wal-Mart!”

Inside, old men in khakis walk next to women pushing shopping carts and bleary-eyed teenagers who carry cereal boxes. Wal-Mart’s 2010 expansion enabled the retailer to add what amounts to an entire grocery store, within about 145,000 square feet. Now, just about everything one needs to sustain a modern lifestyle is here—shoes for $10; sweatshirts for $6.97; a meat aisle overflowing with pork, beef and chicken that’s just steps aways from a pharmacy.

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