It’s not hard to find the construction workers who get paid under the table in East Boston.
“You are on every construction site,” says Carpenter’s Union Local 723 organizer Carlos Desouza. “And every single block is being built.”
On a block on Maverick Street that is under construction for an intestinal renovation and two new condominiums, Desouza sauntered to a painter who was carrying an empty roller board.
“Grandpa, primo,” he said as a greeting and then asked about the work on the construction site. Are you hiring? Maybe. How are they paid? Cash and Personal Checks. Desouza knows what that means. No holding back. No social security contributions. No workers compensation.
He’s not looking for work, but the question gives him an easy way to gauge whether a contractor is paying workers off the books, a practice he estimates is practiced on more than half of Boston construction sites.
While general contractors are tighter and pay their workers salaries, benefits, and health insurance, the subcontractors they hire to do jobs like plastering, framing, painting, and drywalling typically cut costs by giving workers cash or a check pay.
A study by the UMass Amherst Labor Center found that most housing workers in Massachusetts are paid cash.
“The majority of building owners in the residential sector have laid off the regular employees almost completely,” says the center’s report. “The vast majority of these workers in the non-union construction industry should be classified as workers under applicable law in the Commonwealth. The lack of regular employment in legal businesses creates the conditions for hyper-exploitation of precarious and mostly undocumented workers. “
The report found tax fraud and wage theft widespread in the industry. It is estimated that construction tax fraud in the United States costs state and federal taxpayers $ 2.6 billion annually. Up to 1.2 million construction workers are paid each year, and another 300,000 are mistakenly classified as self-employed contractors.
For the local construction workers, many of whom are immigrants, the construction jobs provide a foothold in the country’s economy. Worker Desouza regularly speaks with wages of $ 20-25 an hour, well above the state minimum wage of $ 13.50 an hour. But Desouza says the lack of social benefits or basic worker protection puts a strain on the workers he has turned to.
“I work, but if I had an advantage it would be better,” said Joao, a carpenter who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals from his employer. “If you injure yourself, they will ask you to tell the hospital that you were injured at home. You don’t get any help with the bill. You are not paid for the time you are unemployed. “
When Joao suffered a stab wound to his leg last year, his emergency room visit bill was $ 495. Joao’s employer refused to pay the bill or the missed hours. He was unemployed on a Friday, but when the next week came the prospect of lost wages drove him back to the construction site, albeit with a limp.
“I was back at work on Tuesday,” he said. “I have to feed my family.”
Desouza and Noel Xavier, director of organizing des Local 723, say the lack of health and social benefits, unpaid overtime, and wage theft are common with subcontractors who bid low on contracts and cut costs at the expense of their workers.
“What we see in the backend is that companies are keeping jobs low,” said Xavier. “Your offer does not take into accountNo costs like wage taxes, paid vacation, things legitimate companies have to pay. “
Joao, the carpenter who works by the books, says he applied for a union apprenticeship that would earn him $ 22 an hour plus a pension, sick leave, annual raise, and other benefits.
“There is no future where I work,” he said. “It’s just work, day in and day out.”
Xavier said the union is asking town hall for assistance. District 5 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo drafts an ordinance, the general Contractors are liable for work violations by their subcontractors.
“The ordinance would create a wage theft commission and worker protections to ensure that subcontractor violations are no longer given free rein,” said Arroyo. “It is important that we make sure that our employees are protected. We have seen several cases where workers are on dutyjudged. In the end, we all pay a price for this.”
The ordinance would also mandate that the city of Boston be prevented from sourcing works from contractors who have been suspended by state, state, or local authorities, breached workers’ compensation, or misclassified workers in the past five years. Businesses would need to properly classify workers and comply with all state wage payment laws.
The regulation would apply to projects funded through city tax breaks.
Back in East Boston, and DesouzaEmphasizes the dangers that workers face when employed by subcontractors that save costs.
On the fourth level of a new building, a worker stands on a ladder frame and foams up the outside. He’s not wearing a seat belt. While there is a net that could theoretically catch a falling worker, it is not secured below, which means that a worker could easily slip through.
“I’m sorry for him,” says Desouza, pointing to the worker. “He’s just trying to make a living.”