Union denounces mistreatment of workers at Port Covington construction site

When he took a job building the massive Port Covington development on Baltimore’s Middle Branch waterfront, José thought it would be a legitimate job.

Instead, he and other workers found themselves paid with company checks — which bounced in one case — rather than paychecks with tax withholdings and retirement deductions, workers’ compensation, etc.

For several weeks earlier this year, José says he worked overtime at his exterior metal framing job, but received no time-and-a-half overtime – just his weekly salary of $840.

“It’s not right what they’re doing. They abuse the workers,” said José, who spoke through an interpreter and did not want to give his real name for fear of losing his job.

“I would like to receive social security benefits when I am old. I wish I was paid properly,” said the worker, who had told his story to a union, the Eastern Atlantic States (EAS) Carpenters’ Regional Council.

The union made José and other workers available to The drink as part of their campaign to bring attention to allegations of wage theft, worker misclassification and construction industry tax evasion faced by Port Covington workers.

The union is focusing particular criticism on Port Covington, as the project, initiated by Under Armor founder Kevin Plank, received more than $650 million in public tax increase (TIF) funding from the city of Baltimore. .

“It was meant to be a community investment, something that would benefit the whole community. The workers there shouldn’t be treated like this,” EAS spokesman Frank Mahoney said.

He pointed to the community benefits agreement designed to help sell the deal to a skeptical public in 2016.

“We’re asking the public to get involved and write letters about this, and we’re asking Mayor Brandon Scott to step in as well. There has to be some enforcement,’ Mahoney said yesterday as union supporters held up signs at the intersection of Hanover and Cromwell streets in south Baltimore.

“Tax evasion” and “Pay me my overtime,” the signs read.

Lamar Mutts, a council representative with the union, said he speaks to many workers like José who cannot speak because they are afraid and in many cases undocumented.

“You can see the pain in their eyes, they need these jobs, they have to put up with it,” Mutts said. “These companies are taking shortcuts. It’s a clandestine enterprise, a criminal enterprise.

Exterior work on an office building under construction at the Port Covington project. (Shen Fern)

Subcontractor: “New for me”

After enduring a series of delays, Plank’s Port Covington project is now buzzing with construction activity.

Weller Development, the project’s lead developer, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the union’s allegations.

But Jose’s story prompted a surprise response from the owner of the Baltimore-based drywall company, whose labor broker dealt with the worker.

“This is completely new to me,” said HDL Construction owner José Ruiz, who said his labor broker, AHG LLC, had worked for him for many years “and we had no never had any problems before”.

HDL is a contractor to CBG Building Company, formerly known as Clark Builders Group, which describes itself as the nation’s third-largest multi-family builder.

Ruiz promised to look into the allegations, adding, “I’m sure we follow all the rules.”

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ABOVE: Works in front of the former Port Covington Walmart. BELOW: Construction activity seen from the entrance to the Baltimore Sun building. (Shen Fern)

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On their Port Covington Why website, union leaders also slam the developer for hiring “controversial Baltimore figure Kevin Johnson and his company, Commercial Interiors, to work on the project.”

When labor broker Sergio Blanco pleaded guilty last year to a ‘stealing scheme’ on a construction project at Morgan State University, the union pointed out that Commercial Interiors was a subcontractor on the project and had come to light in the past by task forces for alleged wage theft.

The workers were forced to pay $200 a week to keep their jobs, according to testimony at a hearing in which Blanco was sentenced to six months in prison and taken away in handcuffs.

Johnson’s company did not respond to questions about its labor practices at the time. The drink.

“Don’t make the same mistake I did,” says entrepreneur Sergio Blanco, in a video made for prosecutors after pleading guilty to stealing an employee’s salary from a construction project in Baltimore.

Yesterday’s EAS event was held in conjunction with the national “Days of Action Against Tax Cheating” hosted by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Payroll fraud is a national problem, say union leaders, citing a study that estimates an annual loss of $8.4 billion to federal, state and local governments when employers incorrectly classify workers as independent contractors.

“These actions inflict substantial harm on workers, who do not receive overtime pay and are denied their legal rights to unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, social security and unemployment benefits. ‘healthcare’, according to the 2020 study by the Institute for Construction Economic Research.

The government must crack down on employers who engage in these unethical practices, says William Sproule, executive secretary/treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Council of Carpenters.

“Lax enforcement of laws prohibiting employee misclassification provides a tremendous financial incentive to these industry scammers,” Sproule said in a recent op-ed.

Dirty and unsure

José, who spoke with The drink via Zoom, said the money he earns from his $21 an hour job must go a long way, helping to support his mother, daughter here in the Baltimore area, as well as other members family in Honduras.

José came to the United States in 1998 and recently worked in a southern state, where he said his employer paid workers properly.

By comparison, José said, when he started working in Port Covington, he was not asked to fill out a job application, an I-9 Employment Eligibility Form or a certificate of W-4 employee retainer.

After the recent NSF cheque, he was paid with an online payment app which he’s not sure came through.

The construction site, he also said, is “dirty and dangerous”. Through the translator, he recounted how workers sometimes did not receive proper safety glasses and helmets.

“I had to cut metal with a saw that was the wrong type,” he said. “It was really risky.”

During his many years in construction, José said he got burned working under the table like the one he has now. In one instance, he had filed his income taxes, but when his employer’s practices came to light, “I had to pay $2,600 to the IRS.”

All of this makes him determined to avoid jobs like the Port Covington project:

“I’ve always tried to find a better place to work – one with pay stubs.”

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Union member at yesterday’s action near the entrance to Port Covington. (Shen Fern)

Alice F. Ponder