Sandra Sandoval has been doing drywall finish work for seven years and smiles with pride when she talks about the work she enjoys.
“My uncle taught me construction work when I came to the U.S., and helped me find work,” Sandra said.
But the work she loves recently turned into a nightmare for Sandra, who was on the job for six months at a data center under construction for Microsoft, near Dulles Airport in Virginia. She and more than 50 others were employed by a labor broker, who supplied workers for the project’s drywall contractor and paid them as independent contractors. The workers often worked as many as 56 hours a week, with no overtime pay.
In January, Sandra and other workers began having trouble cashing their paychecks. Checks bounced and workers were hit with overdraft fees. The broker promised to fix the problem and pay them, but weeks went by with no solution. Finally, the broker told the workers he could not pay them and was leaving the project.
Unfortunately, this practice is all too common in construction, even on large projects and for high-visibility owners, like Microsoft.
“I have three kids, a car, rent and insurance,” Sandra said. “This was a real challenge for me.”
Sandra went with some co-workers on a Saturday to meet with the drywall contractor, who told them his company would pay them for just two of the five unpaid weeks, if they agreed in writing to stay on and work as independent contractors, with straight-time pay only.
Sandra was among a group of workers who met with the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (EASRCC) to get advice about the situation. They signed authorization cards for union representation. The next day, many of them were fired but Sandra was told to return to work.
A few days later, Sandra was assigned to finish work on the ceilings, and was operating a scissor lift in an area with limited space. She was wearing gloves but injured her hand when the lift’s railing hit a beam.
A supervisor gave Sandra pain medication and ice but sent her back to work. With no improvement, the next day a supervisor sent her to an onsite clinic, where she was given Aleve. When she visited her own doctor that day, she was told she needed time off and treatment for her hand—but that she should ask the company to apply for workers’ compensation.
She went back to work and was assigned cleaning work, but a day later her supervisor laid Sandra off.
The EASRCC is advising Sandra and other data center workers from the Microsoft project and has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Sandra is still dealing with her injury a month after it occurred.
“I’m not sure if I have any broken bones, but the center of my hand is still painful,” Sandra said.
“I like to work, and I want to get back to construction work,” she said. “I can’t afford to be out of work with no pay. It’s difficult. A co-worker told me she hurt her shoulder but was told if they took her for treatment, she would be let go like I was.”
Members of UBC regional councils will be standing up and taking action against employer tax fraud in the construction industry, April 12 – 18. Visit https://stoptaxfraud.net/standup/ often for more info and to follow on social media.