In a fast-paced and transitory construction industry, it's all too easy for Montana workers to lose out on the wages they deserve

In fall 2014, workers broke ground on one of the University of Montana's biggest new academic offerings: the Harold and Priscilla Gilkey Building, a facility dedicated to "executive education offerings." The three-story structure, which was funded with private donations, aimed to "partner with industry sectors, organizations and business leaders to develop their leadership capability and build organizational performance," according to a UM press release.

One of the first construction workers hired to lay the building's foundation was Jennifer Moen, a tan, lanky 35-year-old. She'll never forget that job—she was homeless at the time and living in her car with her two young kids. After a long shift pouring concrete at the Gilkey site, she'd pick up her kids from a babysitter, park in a Wal-Mart lot overnight and try to keep them warm.

"It was definitely one of those rough moments in my life I never wanna experience again," Moen says.

Since she was making more than $20 an hour, Moen didn't question the desperately needed paychecks—until one day, when she met a union organizer who told her that, according to state law, she and everyone else hired by Northwest Concrete and Excavation deserved to get paid twice as much.

"I didn't really know what the rate was, honestly. I thought that it was fine," Moen says. "I didn't really pay attention."

Moen's case is just one example of how disadvantaged workers can easily be misused in a construction industry that's infrequently policed, according to Miles McCarvel, the ironworker and union organizer who approached Moen.

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"If you give a little, they'll keep on asking for more," McCarvel says. "That's no different with our contractors or anybody else. If somebody can make more money by screwing somebody, they often do."

By the Montana Labor Management Alliance's estimate, construction workers have had to fight to recover nearly $5 million in unpaid wages in the past 10 years. McCarvel and other labor advocates say that's probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to worker exploitation in the state.

When the Gilkey project started, McCarvel walked up to the top floor of a nearby campus building and set up his telescope to keep watch through the window. He acknowledges that it might look a little bit nutty, but as a union organizer, it's part of his job to keep an eye on major public construction projects for any possible wrongdoing and to encourage nonunion workers to join the Local 14. While observing the Gilkey site, he questioned how Northwest Concrete's workers were tying rebar—a process where sections of reinforced steel are tied with metal wire so they stay steady while the concrete foundation is poured in.

"For one thing, there was a pile of rebar everywhere. It was a mess," McCarvel says.

State law sets the prevailing wages for the building industries each year. Ironworkers are at the very top, making about $50 an hour, including benefits. Carpenters make about $30 an hour, general laborers make $27 an hour, and so on. People working on public projects worth more than $25,000—such as the Gilkey Building—are supposed to earn prevailing wages.

After several hours of observation, McCarvel decided he'd seen enough. He walked to the job site, introduced himself to Moen and asked what she was making. Since Moen tied rebar, which is classified as ironwork, she ought to have been making ironworker wages. Instead, she was making about $24 an hour. When McCarvel asked to look at her pay stubs, he noticed strange discrepancies—one week, she'd be paid a salary, the next week, she'd be paid hourly.

"No one's ever told me what it was supposed to be, until Miles stopped and pulled me aside," Moen says.

McCarvel advised Moen to send in copies of her paycheck stubs to the state Department of Labor, and she tried to find the handful that she'd kept. In Montana, the onus is on the employee to initiate wage claims. It's especially tough to call out wrongdoing, McCarvel says, when employees don't want to risk losing their jobs.

"The only way you can catch [contractors] is if you have an employee that isn't job scared, that probably just got fired or something, that kept all their paycheck stubs and knows the law," McCarvel says. "Which almost never happens."

In December 2014, a state wage compliance specialist visited the Gilkey project as part of a routine visit, where an investigator determined that two of Northwest's employees were being paid incorrectly.

In January, Northwest Concrete fired Moen. The termination letter, signed by Northwest owner Mark King, says her employment ended because of "insubordination," being frequently late to work and having a "negative" attitude. She thinks she was fired simply because she started to speak up about her pay.

By May 2015, after Moen submitted a formal wage claim, the state says investigators felt obliged to undertake an audit of every Northwest employee's payment.

States vary widely in approaches to wage theft. Idaho, for instance, is a right-to-work state with fewer prevailing wage requirements. Others, like Utah and Washington, strenuously monitor employers. Between 2013 and 2015, the Utah Department of Labor recovered $1.7 million in pay owed to its residents. Washington keeps an online database where it's easy to look up companies by name to see if they've been found guilty of shortchanging workers.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan

Montana is, by contrast, much less transparent when it comes to wage theft. No database of guilty employers exists online, nor does the Montana Department of Labor issue routine public reports about wage theft. The Wage and Hour Unit, tasked with enforcing prevailing wages, employs three compliance specialists to monitor the entire state construction industry.

Wage and Hour Bureau Chief Pam McDaniel has served the Department of Labor for over 30 years. She acknowledges that the three investigators' scope is limited.

"We don't hit every project, we're just trying to be out there and be within [some of] the projects throughout the whole state," McDaniel says.

She also says that in her entire career, she can't recall a time when she's been asked about prevailing wage laws by a reporter.

In 2015, the Wage and Hour Unit reviewed 110 business payrolls and conducted 49 on-site visits. That represents a small fraction of the thousands of construction projects throughout the state. The city of Missoula alone issued 473 building permits in 2015.

When prevailing wage specialists take note of a problem, such as incorrect or misclassified wages, McDaniel says they notify the contractors, architects and engineers associated with the project. If the employer provides evidence that the wage issue was resolved, the specialists consider the case closed.

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