By COLIN STAUB
On large public works construction projects in Washington, state law requires that workers be paid the prevailing wage. So why isn’t that happening for some sheet metal work on the in-progress Vancouver Fire Station No. 11 construction?
That’s a question Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 has been asking for months without a meaningful response (except a cease-and-desist letter from the contractor they say is breaking the law).
The thing to know in this case is that Washington’s prevailing wage law covers not just work done on a construction site but “off-site work such as custom fabrication for the public works project,” according to Washington Labor & Industries (L&I), the agency that administers labor law in the state.
According to a 1987 policy issued by L&I, such off-site custom fabrication includes sheet metal ducts for HVAC systems in public works projects. Workers must be paid prevailing wage when they’re custom fabricating these systems for a public works project, according to the 1987 directive.
“We’re talking about $50 an hour that’s getting cheated out of workers. We’re talking about full family health insurance, and we’re talking about training.”
–Sheet Metal Local 16 organizer Darrin Boyce
The current journey-level prevailing wage for sheet metal workers is $66.06 per hour. But at the $7.1 million Vancouver Fire Station construction project on Northeast 130th Avenue, workers who’ve fabricated custom duct work were paid closer to minimum wage.
Project General Contractor Kirby Nagelhout hired subcontractor Cowdrey Mechanical Systems to install the HVAC system in the firehouse. State records indicate Cowdrey is correctly paying prevailing wage to the three sheet metal workers who are installing the ducts. But the company purchased sheet metal ductwork from 360 Sheet Metal, a Vancouver supplier that has a contentious history with Sheet Metal Workers Local 16.
Workers at 360 Sheet Metal voted to unionize with Local 16 last June (despite the company hiring a union buster to persuade workers not to affiliate). In the months that followed, the company refused to bargain in good faith and fired two union supporters. (Negotiations are ongoing and Local 16 declined to comment on the current status.)
Local 16 knows 360 Sheet Metal employees aren’t making $66.06 an hour. Most are making close to $16 an hour.
The Vancouver Fire Station case follows four similar complaints Local 16 lodged against 360 Sheet Metal for custom ductwork the company supplied to other public works projects in Vancouver without paying prevailing wage to the workers who made. The other complaints cover work on the 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.
Local 16 has filed a fifth complaint about the Vancouver Fire Station.
“We’re talking about $50 an hour that’s getting cheated out of workers,” said Darrin Boyce, an organizer with Local 16. “We’re talking about full family health insurance, and we’re talking about training.”
Reached by phone, 360 Sheet Metal project manager Joe Martin said the Labor Press is too union-biased, and declined to comment.
The training issue is another concern for Local 16. Washington state law says for public works projects that cost more than $1 million, “all specifications shall require that no less than 15% of the labor hours be performed by apprentices.” That’s to ensure that contractors on publicly funded projects do their part to train the next generation of construction workers.
L&I confirmed that the fire station is subject to apprenticeship utilization requirements. The state will publish the utilization figure when the project is complete. Although Local 16 acknowledges the project may hit 15% apprentice utilization, the union has concerns the project isn’t following the spirit of the apprenticeship utilization requirements. As of May, 13 out of the 39 contractors working on the project were not registered training agents in Washington or Oregon. So while the project as a whole may be in compliance, some contractors aren’t using any apprentices, which Local 16 argues isn’t advancing the goal of training the next generation of trade workers.
Investigation drags on
Leaders of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 say they want the law to be followed so that they can work in partnership on public works projects, rather than showing up outside with the union’s giant inflatable Fat Cat (holding a bag of cash in one hand and squeezing a worker in the other). Union representatives set up the fat cat outside the firehouse on May 19, and two reps toured the site until a Kirby Nagelhout project manager asked them to leave the premises after learning about the fat cat.
“Our point with Fire House 11 is, this isn’t going well, and we’d like to see better in the future,” said Matt Haines, a Local 16 organizer.
But so far, union leaders say no changes are appearing on the horizon. Haines contacted the City of Vancouver about the prevailing wage and apprenticeship concerns in November 2021.
City Procurement Manager Anna Vogel responded that the City monitors apprenticeship utilization on a monthly basis and believes the project is in compliance with those regulations. Although Cowdrey is not hiring apprentices, a separate subcontractor will be providing sheet metal apprentices, Vogel said.
As for the prevailing wage complaints, Vogel said the city “intends to wait for [L&I’s] final determination on their investigation” before pursuing those complaints with 360 Sheet Metal.
Contacted this month by the Labor PressL&I spokesperson Matthew Erlich confirmed the agency is investigating five prevailing wage complaints involving 360 Sheet Metal, but that the investigations are “still under way without a scheduled end date.”
If the state confirms that the work is indeed subject to prevailing wages, L&I could issue a notice of violation to the employer or reach a settlement for back wages. The City of Vancouver also told Local 16 it would take steps to ensure that proper wages are paid if L&I determines the work is subject to prevailing wage.
The fire station prevailing wage complaint was filed in December 2021, joining the others that were filed from August through November 2020.
Asked why it’s taking so long to investigate, Ehrlich explained prevailing wage issues are handled differently than other wage payment complaints, which have a 60-day deadline for the state to conclude its investigation. Investigating prevailing wage involves “very significant searches for information” covering wages paid, scopes of work performed, and determining when employees were doing specific tasks. It’s difficult because employees may have been working on the public works project and other projects in the same day, and prevailing wage would be paid only for the hours spent on the public project.
“That does take an extensive amount of effort to go through a lot of the records and figure out what’s going on,” Ehrlich said.
So far, the only swift response has come from lawyers for 360 Sheet Metal. Just a week after Local 16 contacted the City, a law firm representing the company got wind of that communication and the firm sent a cease and desist letter to Haines, the union organizer. It demanded the union stop making statements to the City suggesting 360 Sheet Metal should be paying prevailing wage, among other points.