By COLIN STAUB
It’s what they should have been paid months or years ago, but workers at 360 Sheet Metal will finally receive $212,000 in back wages owed because their employer illegally underpaid them.
Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) found that the company repeatedly violated the state’s prevailing wage law on Vancouver public construction projects. When the company declined to pay, the agency went after the general contractors that hired the Vancouver sheet metal fabricator.
None of it would have happened without Sheet Metal Workers (SMART) Local 16: Local 16 repeatedly alerted L&I to 360 Sheet Metal’s prevailing wage violations, and is in the process of filing more complaints.
Thirty-four workers will be paid the difference between what they should have been paid (between $62.52 and $66.06 per hour) and what 360 Sheet Metal paid them (as low as minimum wage, currently $14.49 an hour). Last month, contractors that hired 360 Sheet Metal cut checks to L&I totaling $165,000, and the agency is pursuing another $47,000 from a contractor that has not agreed to pay. Altogether, that’s the amount of unpaid wages plus interest, assessed at 1% per month starting when the wages were initially owed.
“It’s extremely validating, to tell you the truth,” said former 360 worker Patrick Vader, who supported the successful Local 16 union drive a year ago. He says 360 manager Joe Martin fired him in retaliation for union activity. He’s working in another metal shop now, but Vader, his wife and two children have had a hard time making ends meet, and they’ve taken on some debt. 360 owes Vader more than $6,200 in wages for work on three projects, according to L&I.
“It really does make a difference,” Vader said when he learned the money could be coming. “It doesn’t make up for the fact that he found me expendable.”
Liens spur payment
SMART Local 16 filed complaints in 2020 and 2021 about 360 Sheet Metal’s involvement in five public construction projects in Vancouver: the Vancouver Fire Station, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Replacement School, ES 22 Elementary School, Ellsworth Elementary, and a project involving Legacy High School, the Transitions Program and 49th St Academy.
Washington and Oregon are two of 26 states plus the District of Columbia that have prevailing wage laws, which set minimum pay and benefits for certain jobs performed on public construction projects. The goal is to ensure that construction companies don’t win public contracts by paying substandard wages. When a contractor violates the prevailing wage, they’re not only stealing from their own workers; they’re also undercutting responsible contractors who would have paid the proper wage.
Most states’ prevailing wage laws cover just construction work performed on the construction site. But some work, like custom-made sheet metal ductwork, can be fabricated on-site or off-site; Washington’s prevailing wage law covers custom off-site fabrication too, and that’s what 360 Sheet Metal was subcontracted to provide for all five projects.
Erlich, the L&I spokesperson, said not only did 360 Sheet Metal underpay its workers; it also several times failed to provide legally required basic documents, such as “intents, affidavits, or weekly certified payroll.”
On Aug. 24, nearly two years after Local 16 filed its first complaint, L&I shared its investigation results with 360 Sheet Metal. It found that the company owed $247,000 in back wages, interest and penalties for the infractions. L&I requested payment by Sept. 7, explaining that the amount owed would increase to $299,000 if 360 didn’t comply.
Brian Noble, business manager for Local 16, says the union believes the dollar figures should be higher. Some employees who worked on public works projects aren’t listed in L&I’s findings, he said.
360 didn’t pay, so L&I went after the general contractors. On Sept. 8 the agency filed liens against contractors Robinson Construction, Petra Inc. of Idaho, Kirby Nagelhout Construction and Triplett Wellman, which was general contractor on two projects. The liens would prevent the contractors from receiving their final payments from public project owners, called “retainage,” until they paid the back wages. Erlich said the retainage could total millions of dollars. That’s a pretty strong incentive to pay now, so that the wronged workers can get what was owed to them; the contractors could then try to collect from 360 Sheet Metal. As of press time, four contractors had either paid or were in the process of paying 360’s bill, and a fifth had not indicated its plans. L&I’s spokesperson says the agency will consider sending a notice of violation to that company, Petra Inc. of Idaho.
Before the contractors paid, Local 16 says Martin pledged to appeal the fine, possibly delaying payment further. For some workers, the timing was less important than sending a message.
“I don’t care if it takes 10 years,” said Ryan Arias, a worker who’s owed $14,400. “Something’s being done, and that’s fair. In my eyes, that’s fair.”
The amount of payments vary, and several workers will get more than $25,000 in unpaid wages.
The back pay decision comes as workers have been striking now since July 25— more than two months— to protest their employer’s retaliation against union supporters and refusal to bargain in good faith. Joined by Local 16 reps, they’re picketing five days a week, from about 5:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Eight workers are striking, supported by a strike fund, while a handful more are crossing the picket line.
Speaking from the picket line Sept. 23, Arias said his message to management is simple: Stop fighting workers every step of the way.
“This company can be a healthy company,” Arias said. “But in doing this, you’re destroying and burning bridges.”
Teamsters Joint Council 37 executive board has voted to sanction the strike. That means Teamsters Local 58-represented solid waste drivers are not picking up trash and recycling from the facility, UPS drivers aren’t delivering packages, and a few signatory freight carriers are not serving the company.
“Leadership at Local 58 stands in unity with the striking sheet metal workers, in hopes that they’re able to achieve a resolution or a labor agreement that rewards them for their contribution and provides them with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Walter LaChapelle, principal officer for Local 58 and a member of the Joint Council executive board, told the Labor Press.