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What Stolen Wages Really Mean in Construction

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Great piece in Workday about what stolen wages really mean in construction–injured workers not getting treatment.

In 2022, construction worker José Alfredo Gómez fell two stories from the home he was working on, he says. A group of men on a boat in a nearby lake saw and called an ambulance. This was against the wishes of the jobsite supervisor, who insisted on transporting him in a work van, which had no seats and was filled with tools, Gómez says. The ambulance arrived, but Gómez’s injuries were so extreme, emergency personnel decided it would be best to airlift him to a hospital in St. Paul, Minn., where he was able to be treated, he recalls.

Gómez, who declines to name the company he was working for at the time, says he suffered from two fractured elbows, a broken hip, a large laceration on his forehead, and head trauma. “Imagine, the bone had come out of my pelvis,” he says. “The bone was sticking out.”

When he was recovering in the hospital, he says he received a visit from his boss, who assured him there was no need to contact lawyers and offered him a weekly payment of $200 to keep quiet. The boss inquired about how Gómez planned to pay for the medical bills, in an attempt to dissuade him from using the company’s workers’ compensation insurance that he was rightfully owed, Gómez says. The boss advised him to change his address and work under a different name to avoid paying the medical bills, according to Gómez. 

Then the first few medical bills arrived, he says, totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Gómez explains that in that moment he realized he needed support. A friend and fellow construction worker referred him to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a workers’ center, which educated him of his rights and connected him with a lawyer. 

According to Gómez, this lawyer helped him see that his boss was attempting to mislead him into paying the medical bills out of his own pocket, or using his own insurance, rather than the company’s workers’ compensation insurance. The boss attempted to do this by resorting to a prevalent—yet poorly understood—means of offsetting costs: misconstruing Gómez’s status as an independent contractor. By pressuring Gómez to provide his own insurance while he was still recovering in the hospital, the boss was attempting to shirk responsibility for providing him workers’ compensation insurance after a devastating workplace injury.

So these contractors are really bad.

But we need to note another thing, which is that the building trades basically do not organize home construction or smaller corporate construction. The trades are really quite dependent on the government for their contracts. So you have a tiny number of actual construction workers organized. Worker centers can kinda sorta help, but not really that much. That’s a subject for a separate post. So you have the large majority of construction workers out there completely on their own. That many of them are immigrants while so few trades members are immigrants just reinforces the divide. I also want to state that this isn’t a result of the trades being anti-immigrant; in fact, they know the future of their unions are immigrants. It’s them not having an organizing culture that brings in new members or the wherewithal to figure out how to organize the contractors. What this all ends up meaning is situations like this.

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