UNDER THE ROSS ISLAND BRIDGE: Investigating a low-bid nonunion contractor, a union finds problems aplenty

Repainting temporarily halted under Portland’s Ross Island Bridge after a 40’ fall put two workers in the hospital.

By Don McIntosh

Under the Ross Island Bridge on Feb. 8, a painter working for nonunion Abhe & Svoboda plummeted 40 feet and landed on a co-worker, his own son, putting both in the hospital with serious injuries. Oregon-OSHA is investigating the accident and will produce a report in the next six months. But co-worker Omar Rubi says he has a pretty good idea what happened.

Near an over-large ladder hole on the highest level of scaffolding, a loose metal plate had become a trip hazard, Rubi says — and Abhe & Svoboda employees were routinely failing to use fall protection. Workers at heights are supposed to wear harnesses and tie them to lines attached to scaffolding supports, but Rubi says that often wasn’t happening.

In fact, the day before the accident, Rubi told co-workers they have the right under federal law to speak up about safety or other concerns. Soon after, a company safety inspector said he’d be writing Rubi up for not attaching his harness to a line. Rubi felt he’d been singled out for speaking up, and took pictures of his foremen and third-party inspectors not wearing harnesses. At the end of his shift, he was told not to come in the next day, despite having worked on the project five days a week since July 16, 2016.

An important thing to know about Rubi: He’s a union “salt.”

A salt is a worker who takes a job as the agent of a union. Salts document management  misdeeds, educate co-workers about their rights, and even take part in union organizing campaigns.

“When it’s ‘go, go, go’ sometimes people don’t pay attention. … Traditionally when you’re working in a dangerous environment like that, employers don’t usually rush you to get things done because they understand the liability issue.”
— Abhe & Svoboda employee Omar Rubi

In this case, Rubi was sent in by Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5 on suspicion that something wasn’t right on the Ross Island Bridge repainting project. It’s a complicated three-year deal that involves the construction of temporary support structures and containment systems underneath the bridge in order to safely sandblast and repaint three steel arch spans that have aged and rusted since they were last painted in the 1960s.

The Ross Island Bridge spans the Willamette River, connecting U.S. Route 26 between southwest and southeast Portland. In 1976, ownership was transferred from Multnomah County to the state.

Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) estimated that bids would come in at $30 to $40 million. But nonunion Abhe & Svoboda of Minnesota won the contract with a low bid of $22.3 million — $11 million below the union-signatory contractor, Hercules Painting of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

The union wanted to know how Abhe & Svoboda could bid so low, even though they’re required to pay the same hourly wage and benefits as their union competitor, under the state “little Davis-Bacon” law, which requires contractors on government construction projects to pay the prevailing wage. Could they be cutting corners to make the project pencil out? Rubi got a job there to find out, and soon found problems.

Paint in some cases was being applied at the wrong thickness or in conditions that were too cold or humid to meet manufacturer specifications, Rubi said. In places, paint was bubbling or chipping, or missing required “striping” along joints.

From along the river bank, Painters District Council 5 field representative Scott Oldham took video of workers without proper respirators, suits, safety glasses or fall protection using air blowers to clean up sandblasting debris when the structure wasn’t fully contained by tarps. Oldham says that could result in the toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and chromium falling into the Willamette River.

But as bad or worse were conditions for workers. As Rubi describes it, Abhe & Svoboda’s under-the-bridge crew of 20 to 30 workers — many of whom were brought in from out of town — was a hotbed of racial and gender discord and tension. African-American workers were derided for laziness and referred to as monkeys and leeches by co-workers and supervisors, Rubi says.

Rubi, a native Spanish speaker, arrived at work on Election Day to find his locker defaced with obscene images and the words “Trump 16.” A supervisor told him, on threat of firing, not to talk to a female African-American co-worker who had complained of extreme sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Oldham did some research, and found violations and fines on numerous Abhe & Svoboda bridge projects. Some examples:

  • Connecticut, 2007 – $1.3 million in unpaid wages for paying painters at the wage for laborers and carpenters
  • Astoria, Oregon, 2011 – Nearly $30,000 in penalties for dozens of OSHA violations
  • Hawaii, 2012 – $15,500 in penalties for three serious OSHA violations
  • Fresno County, California, 2013 – $90,900 in civil penalties for failure to employ apprentices as required
  • Mendocino County, California, 2016 – $60,000 in back wages and $55,000 in penalties for prevailing wage violations

And this wasn’t even the first time Abhe & Svoboda had been scrutinized by Portland-area unions. In 1998, when Abhe & Svoboda was in charge of a $21.8 million renovation of the Hawthorne Bridge, the Painters and Iron Workers unions collected evidence showing that lead-contaminated debris was falling into the Willamette River and grounds near the jobsite, and the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council sued the company for failing to hire local construction workers and for not being a registered training agent, as required by a Multnomah County ordinance.

On Feb. 1, 2017, Oldham emailed an ODOT manager with details and photo evidence of his concerns about paint, environmental, safety, and work culture problems on the Ross Island Bridge project. ODOT’s Metro East Area Manager Rich Watanabe responded by email Feb. 8, addressing the concerns point by point. Any performance problems will be caught by qualified ODOT project inspectors, Watanabe said.

“ODOT makes special efforts to ensure projects are being constructed safely and in a manner that meets our requirements to deliver a quality product for our stakeholders,” Watanabe wrote.

That was six hours after the accident.

Oldham felt that wasn’t good enough, and wrote back: “I stated in previous emails that we have additional information, daily logs from workers on the site, statements, pictures, video documentation and direct contact with the painters onsite. I am disheartened by your choice to not take these sources into consideration.”

As for the accident itself, Oregon-OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin told the Labor Press he couldn’t discuss details of the agency’s active investigation, but promised to share the results when the investigation is complete.

In fact, OSHA had been out to the Ross Island project at least once before, on June 8 June 13, 2016, but found no violations and issued no citations. The complaint they were investigating? That there were holes employees could fall through while sandblasting and painting the bridge.

Abhe & Svoboda did not immediately respond to a call from the Labor Press.

4 Comments on UNDER THE ROSS ISLAND BRIDGE: Investigating a low-bid nonunion contractor, a union finds problems aplenty

  1. I worked for Abhe and Svoboda for 5 years and found them to be nothing but professional. We had our own problems with union employees. The union would often send commercial and residential painters to industrial jobs without proper training in rigging and safety procedures. Industrial jobs require an entirely different scope of work. They were always more than fair when paying us and we always knew what and when we were being paid. I’m not going to say that the fault in this lies on Abhe’s doorstep, but it takes everyone working together to make a works item safe. If someone had mentioned the safety violation. It would have been fixed by any of the people I worked for. I have worked both union and non-union jobs and none were ever personally or environmentally unsafe. There are contractors out there who put profit over safety and I could name several, but not Abhe and Svoboda.

    • Well if you were aware the employees that were sent from the union to be under skilled it is the duty of the company to give them proper training,that’s why accidents happen, guys like you passing the buck

  2. This article is an important step in addressing the willingness of private companies who bid on public works projects to ignore job requirements as they are stipulated in the project bid specifications to gain an unfair advantage in the competition for public construction dollars. Another equally important aspect of this story that was not explored is the failure of public officials charged with project oversight to ensure tax payers get what they are paying for. A question that is equally important is why the State of Oregon’s employees at Oregon OSHA charged with monitoring the safety of workers on the job site have failed in their duties. This was a preventable accident that Oregon OSHA has partial responsibility for do to their failure to investigate employee concerns.

    Evidence exist that shows management at Abhe & Svaoboda directed its employee to deviate from the contract specifications to increase profits, the question becomes why the State’s employees have chosen to look the other way? Many questions regarding this were not asked by the press nor were the consequences of the contractor’s actions explored. The press has not questioned if the State of Oregon’s employees charged with contract oversight and insuring all specifications were adhered to received any gifts, trips, sponsored out of State seminars that were paid for by Abhe & Svaoboda or offers of future employment were offered by Abhe & Svaoboda to public officials charged with project oversight. The Press did not question why the public official assigned to the project management team in charge of the bridge project had a preference to utilize Abhe & Svaoboda prior to the project being awarded and what contacts he had with Abhe & Svaoboda prior to the bid award. The Press has not questioned why the Director of Oregon OSHA failed to take serious the concerns of Abhe & Svaoboda employees regarding workplace safety.

    The questions above are equally important to the story about Abhe & Svaoboda’s presence on public works projects in Oregon. Given the number of willfully committed violations of employee wage and hour regulations, employee safety regulations and failures by Abhe & Svaoboda to comply with contract specifications on other public projects why were they the preferred contractor on the Ross Island Bridge project?

    It is the failure of the employees of Oregon OSHA to ensure that safety regulations are followed that played an important role leading up to the accident that took place on February 8th. The Press does not question why in the past management of Abhe & Svaoboda was informed days or weeks prior to any Oregon OSHA employees stepping foot on the job site what date they would arrive, what time they would arrive, and who the inspectors would be. This allowed the contractor to ensure most things are in order for the inspection, allowing Oregon OSHA to quickly enter and exit the construction site significantly reducing any safety violations they would have found had the inspection been done without prior notification. Had Oregon OSHA inspectors found violations they would have been required to file reports and address the issue which it appears Oregon’s OSHA inspectors simply do not have time for.

    The Press has failed to investigate exactly why the public employees in charge of project oversight have failed to act on the contractor circumventing contract specifications. Rather than assuring contract compliance and forcing Abhe & Svaoboda to comply with contract documents public contract managers have found it easier to simply ignore the issue.

    The reporter in this article does spend significant time explaining and focusing on Mr. Rubi’s Union sympathies though this has zero bearing on the actual event and the contractor’s failure to comply with contract requirement. The reality being that Mr. Rubi is an actual employee of the company who has come forward with evidence that demonstrates the contractor has acted to cheat the citizens of Oregon, that the contractor on this public project has acted in ways that foster racism, sexism and has acted in a discriminatory fashion. If Rubi had been a part company management with a graduates degree, a six figure salary, and a nice home in the suburbs and wore a tailored suit would his union sympathies have been of such interest to the press or would they rather talk about his courage in coming forward? The fact that the press failed to further investigate a claim by KATU News that they had spoken to several other employees who addressed Abhe & Svaoboda’s failure to comply with Oregon OSHA regulations but were too frightened to make a public statement is far more important than Mr. Rubi’s union sympathies. What is important is that Mr. Rubi’s actions in coming forward took courage and will most likely lead to the loss of his job for simply stating the facts.

    The press ignores the failures of well-educated, upper middle class public sector managers and Directors and the real negative effects that their inaction has on Oregon’s blue collar, working class residences as well as how public employee’s inaction has led to the Citizens of Oregon not getting what they have paid for. The reality is those public employees charged with project oversight and those public employees who are charged with ensuring Oregon’s blue collar workers enjoy a safe worksite have chosen to avoid any friction with private employers rather than carrying out their assigned duties. The public employees charged with duties which may put them in conflict with private company management have chosen to view blue collar workers as their enemies who simply make their jobs difficult by asking that they perform the duties that their positions dictate.

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