Painters District Council 5 helps Hispanic workers collect back pay

Painters District Council 5 has helped 30 non-union Hispanic drywall tapers and hangers at AB Interiors of Tualatin collect more than $20,000 in wages they were owed for work on four different jobs in Oregon and southwest Washington.

The council, along with the Pacific Northwest District Council of Carpenters, is currently trying to get another $17,000 that is still owed to other workers.

David Winkler, a representative of Council 5, stumbled into the situation in August after a routine stop at the Avamere assisted living home jobsite in Hillsboro, where he was run off by a superintendent of AB Interiors.

A few days later he ran into a different group of men working for the same company at University Inn Staybridge Suites in Vancouver. He handed out business cards and, in Spanish, he told the workers to call him if they had any questions or concerns.

That evening a worker called to say that none of the tapers or hangers at the Vancouver job had been paid in over a month.

Winkler returned to the jobsite the next day to talk with the general contractor, Exel Pacific.

The dispute, workers told Winkler, was about their independent contractor status, contractors' licenses and quality of work. AB Interiors was trying avoid paying workers' compensation and other payroll taxes by claiming the workers were "independent contractors" and that checks had been delayed because of poor workmanship. Winkler checked with the general contractor and learned job quality was not an issue with them and workers believed they were hired hands.

Winkler contacted the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, which investigated the company and determined that the workforce did not meet the criteria for an independent contractor.

"This is just an example of the exploitation of workers in the non-union environment," said Winkler, who said most of the workers were undocumented Hispanic men.

Winkler then represented the unpaid workers in a series of meetings with the owner of AB Interiors. He was thrown out of one meeting and police were called on a trespass charge at another. But Winkler was relentless.

He collected documented work hours, got the Department of Labor and Industries to start an audit of the company, and eventually got the owner to write two checks for more than $20,000 in wages owed. The first one was Sept. 15 for more than $11,000.

Still, for the hours of work involved, the average wage was no more than $7.50 an hour, Winkler said. And, unfortunately, more than $17,000 is still owed other Hispanic workers at AB Interiors.

"These are the companies we have to compete with for jobs," said Winkler. The painters and hangers are reaching out to Hispanic workers, trying to inform them of their rights at work and to get them to join their unions. "We need to organize these guys, documented or not," Winkler said. "They are bringing down area standards by working for employers who are exploiting them by paying low wages."

"They thought they were being hired as employees, not independent contractors," Winkler explained. "Because many of them are undocumented, they fear they will be deported if they make too much noise. We want them on our side, to let them know we can help them."

Earlier this year, the Executive Council of the national AFL-CIO unanimously passed a resolution to seek amnesty for immigrant workers who do not have legal- resident status. The current system, the AFL-CIO said, is not working because some employers skirt the law, and the federal government often is lax in administering the rules. "Once here, all workers, documented or undocumented, should have full workplace rights to protect their own interests and the rights of all American workers," the AFL-CIO has said.

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