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VCU Construction Workers Allege Wage Theft, Exploitation

sign in front of work site
At VCU, where workers say they're being exploited in part due to their immigration status, a large sign addressed to them from the university says "Thank You, Muchas Gracias." (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Construction workers at Virginia Commonwealth University say they're being exploited by middle men who operate without oversight from the university. Although VCU has promised changes that would benefit registered contractors, they are not taking actions to prevent exploitation of the undocumented immigrants who make up much of the labor force.

Workers alleged wage theft and other labor violations, including misclassification as contractors instead of employees, exempting them from benefits. The workers VPM spoke to asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

One worker says they have been directed by supervisors to lie about pay conditions to government and union officials. 

“They don’t pay people for overtime when they work more hours. They don’t deduct taxes for your pension or anything like that. There’s no deductions,” they said.

The worker told VPM that non-English speaking immigrant workers - mainly Latino - have disproportionately been targeted by these practices, and undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable. 

Although the workers meet IRS criteria for employees - they work 40 hours a week, sometimes more, and use company equipment - they say they aren’t treated like employees. 

"If I were to get into an accident, if something happens to me, there’s no one that can give me a hand - and then I can't bring food home."

 - Construction worker

Instead, workers are classified as independent contractors, or kept off the books and paid in cash. They don’t receive medical or unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or other standard benefits.

“If they classify me as a contractor, and if I were to get into an accident, if something happens to me, there’s no one that can give me a hand, and then I can’t bring food home,” a worker said. 

Undocumented workers left unacknowledged and unprotected

According to the university’s procurement office, VCU does not hire undocumented workers, but one of the workers VPM spoke with said a large portion of the workforce at VCU sites is undocumented.

In an email, a VCU spokesperson said the university “doesn't directly hire construction employees.” And although they receive daily worker numbers from the construction companies, they say they “cannot verify the accuracy of the number each day.”

One of the workers says labor brokers seek out immigrants in particular for their vulnerability, and use intimidation tactics to keep them quiet. They say supervisors are “monetarily and mentally abusive.”

“They prefer to hire immigrants because they bow their heads and don’t speak up. They prefer them so they can extort them how they wish,” the worker said. “Workers don’t have any other options. We don’t have any option but to work with them, the contractor, even though we know he’s abusive.”

Another worker VPM spoke with said they wish it was easier to get permits to work in the United States, so they didn’t have to go through labor brokers. 

This summer, members of the Eastern Atlantic States’ Regional Council of Carpenters, the local carpenters union, began holding signs on VCU’s campus, accusing the university of wage theft.

“If an undocumented worker goes on a job site, they should be protected under the law,” said Frank Mahoney, communications director for the union.

“And if they're being taken advantage of more than a documented worker, it's really just because it's easier to do to them. And that's wrong. And if we pay the fair standards and wages across the board, then it's going to help everybody,” he said.

Layers of contracts muddle accountability

Construction workers are not hired directly by VCU. Instead, the university contracts with a construction company, which then hires smaller subcontractor companies that provide specific services. These subcontractors then turn to labor brokers. Labor brokers provide the workers, who are mostly immigrants.

Workers say it's these labor brokers who often pocket part of their pay. One of the workers VPM spoke with said project supervisors have also charged workers fees to pick up weekend shifts. 

“[VCU needs] to take their role as a leader in the community more seriously."

- Frank Mahoney, Eastern Atlantic States’ Regional Council of Carpenters

“I don’t know why VCU allows those things to happen. They say it’s such a well funded and secure project, but in reality, they don’t look at how the workers at the lowest level are being affected,” they said.

VCU said the allegations are “inaccurate and unrelated to campus projects.” 

“The core issue behind the signage is the use of independent contractors by General Contractors (GC’s) on large construction projects. Independent contractors are not widely used by VCU GC’s or their subcontractors, nor is such use illegal,” the university said in a statement.

VCU says it mainly leaves hiring to construction managers. But those managers then hire independent contractors through subcontractors and labor brokers.

When VPM asked whether VCU would consider an internal investigation into the workers’ allegations, the university spokesperson said the matter is between the construction company and its subcontractors.

Mahoney says the university needs to take responsibility. “They need to take their role as a leader in the community more seriously,” Mahoney said. “And that starts with the people that are building their buildings, and making sure they have responsible contractor language that will make sure that those workers are being protected.”

VCU says it will take additional steps in future construction projects, including:

  • Requiring contractors to promptly pay subcontractors after completion of their work to improve cash flow for small and diverse businesses
  • Requiring GC’s to carry performance and payment bonds to ensure prompt payment for services rendered by subcontractors
  • Confirming that GC’s haven’t been debarred from doing business in Virginia and other states for violations of law or national security
  • Require GC’s to submit a copy of their Contractor’s License issued by the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation as evidence of qualifications

While the university’s plan for mitigating employee misclassification would benefit registered contractors, it does not acknowledge protections for the projects’ undocumented workers, who make up a large portion of VCU’s construction workforce. 

According to state and federal law, undocumented workers who have been victims of wage theft and other labor violations can claim similar legal protections to documented workers.

Correction:  Captions misidentified a job site as being one where complaints occurred. The site pictured is worked by a company that allows employees to unionize, and is not one of the sites where workers say they've had pay stolen. The captions have been corrected.