By MALLORY GRUBEN
Contractors who bid on public projects with the City of Vancouver now must verify that their subcontractors are responsible businesses — not labor law violators.
The city last month added language to its project forms asking contractors to confirm their subcontractors have not violated the state’s wage laws in the last three years or violated the apprenticeship utilization standards in the last year. State law already requires contractors to verify that, so asking them to acknowledge that they did is really just a backstop, said Anna Vogel, the city’s procurement manager.
The change comes on the tails of a significant wage theft case involving four public projects in the Vancouver area. In 2019 and 2020, the subcontractor 360 Sheet Metal stiffed workers more than $200,000 for their work on Legacy High School, Transitions, and 49th Street Academy in the Evergreen School District; ES 22 Elementary School with the Educational Service District 114; Ellsworth Elementary School with the ESD 114; and MLK Jr. Elementary School in the Vancouver School District.
“We are looking forward to some monstrous projects here, hundreds of millions of dollars, and I want to make sure we are not getting a company that ignores the rules of what we think are best practices”–Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she wanted the backstop language to try to prevent another situation like that.
“We are looking forward to some monstrous projects here, hundreds of millions of dollars, and I want to make sure we are not getting a company that ignores the rules of what we think are best practices,” she said. That includes a $20 million project to remodel Main Street, a $40 million project to improve safety and appearance of the Fourth Plain district, and an estimated $17 million project to repurpose an old library on Mill Plain into an arts hub. The city will also be part of the planning process for the $5 to $7.5 billion Interstate 5 bridge replacement project.
McEnerny-Ogle heard from union leaders at the Labor Roundtable of Southwest Washington, an informal group of active and retired labor leaders, about how some contractors cheat the system. For example, a contractor who is fined might dissolve their business and open a “new” shop doing the same work, so it appears like they have a clean track record.
McEnerny-Ogle and Vancouver Mayor Pro Tem Ty Stober asked Vogel to start checking how long subcontractors have been registered under a certain name. Although the longevity of a business will not affect its application, having that information might make it easier to catch a sneaky rule-breaker.
“If we are getting a lot of subcontractors with short business times, that can flag and maybe get us to dig a little deeper,” Stober said.
Sheet Metal Local 16 rep Dustin Hysmith said unions are often the only groups monitoring job sites because L&I doesn’t get enough funding for a robust team of compliance officers. With 360 Sheet Metal, Local 16 filed the wage complaints that launched L&I’s investigation.
Hysmith said he didn’t personally advocate for the changes in Vancouver, but he sees them as a positive.
“I think it might help bring these cheaters, these people who are under the radar, on the record,” Hysmith said.