Nonunion Texas electrical contractors looking to turn a quick buck on prevailing wage projects often look for projects in El Paso.
Located on the Rio Grande River just across from Juarez, Mexico, the city teems with workers vulnerable to wage theft, targeted by contractors who pay them less than the prevailing rates by misclassifying the actual work they perform.
Last year, two workers who had been working as electricians on a large bus maintenance shop for the Sun Metro, the local bus company, showed up at El Paso Local 583’s union office. They told Organizer William Markwell that, despite performing electrical work, they were being paid as laborers by Beltran Electrical Contractors, a nonunion outfit. Their hourly rates of pay hovered at a meager $7.90 per hour. Markwell had already had suspicions about wage theft after following the bus shop project on IBEW’s Project Tracker.
It wasn’t Local 583’s first encounter with Beltran. A few years back the local had issued a complaint about the company using unlicensed electricians. Beltran was fined $750.
“This stuff happens constantly in our area,” says Markwell. Beltran, like other contractors charged with wage theft, said they made a mistake. “But wasn’t a mistake,” says Markwell. “It’s how Beltran [and other irresponsible contractors in the border town] bid jobs,” calculating their savings from paying improper rates.
Markwell investigated the electricians’ complaint and found they weren’t even reported on the company’s certified payroll. But they brought pictures of the electrical work they performed along with pay stubs. Sure enough, they were performing electrical work and working well below scale. He reported the wage theft to the city.
The electricians, who had moved on to work for another contractor, went back to Beltran asking to be paid the difference between laborer rates and electrician pay. Beltran cut them checks but Markwell says still they were still left shortchanged.
Soon, more Beltran electricians were contacting Local 583 with similar complaints. Markwell spoke with the local union’s attorneys who advised him that Beltran was liable for fines of $50 per day for violating prevailing wage requirements.
Markwell heard the city was considering withholding its final payment to Beltran pending a settlement of the worker misclassification issue. He was told the issue would be discussed at the next city council meeting.
Working with Lift Up El Paso, a local coalition of union, faith and community groups, Markwell addressed the city council on the need to address Beltran’s conduct. The city’s attorney announced El Paso was withholding payments to the Urban Associates, the general contractor that enlisted Beltran for the bus facility until the wage theft issue was resolved.
As the city tries to recover lost wages for Beltran’s workers, Local 583 and Lift Up El Paso are working to pass an ordinance that would prohibit companies that have been convicted of wage theft from being able to bid for contracts by the city. A similar ordinance was passed in Houston.
The El Paso City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing wage theft in 2011. But it contained no enforcement procedures.
Jed Untereker, legal director for the Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project, told the El Paso Times that an ordinance would call for creating a database of “bad actors” who have been found guilty of wage theft by civil or criminal courts or by state or federal agencies.
“In a nutshell, we want to begin the discussion about raising the quality of life for all El Pasoans. We see the wage-theft ordinance as the first step in the process. Let’s start a discussion as a city and community,” said Untereker.