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New Report Details Mistreatment of Charlotte Construction Workers 

Behind the boom

Regardless of where you look in Charlotte, one thing is apparent, growth is occurring, and occurring rapidly.

Depending on whom you ask, between 40 and 80 people are streaming into the city every day, and those people need homes, hangouts and other havens.

But the folks tasked with building the city's expanding infrastructure are too often ignored, mistreated by their employers and left with no avenue to address their concerns.

Now a group of construction workers and workers' advocates are shining a light on the conditions under which these workers have quietly toiled for years.

A recent report released by the University of Illinois at Chicago in collaboration with the Workers Defense Project and the Partnership for Working Families highlights the abuses and rights violations that run rampant in Charlotte's construction industry.

The report, titled Build a Better South, examined the working conditions of 1,435 construction workers in Charlotte and five other Southern cities.

Now, feeling validated by the findings of the report, some Charlotte area workers are stepping out from the shadows to speak out about poor conditions and mistreatment by employers in the local construction industry.

"I was a worker. I was part of it," said Alexis Gonzalez, who is currently on strike from his job with the North Carolina-based reinforcing company Borders Rebar. "I'm proud to be a part of building Charlotte's future, but the working conditions here are not something that Charlotte can be proud of."

On June 26, Gonzalez was part of a group that called on Charlotte City Council to approve policy that would force developers in Charlotte to disclose their contractors' employment practices.

Supporters of the Justice and Respect in the Reinforcing Industry Coalition stand outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. To the right, in yellow, Alexis Gonzalez prepares to address media. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Supporters of the Justice and Respect in the Reinforcing Industry Coalition stand outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. To the right, in yellow, Alexis Gonzalez prepares to address media. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

That morning, he spoke with Creative Loafing about some of the things he had witnessed and experienced in his five years as a construction worker.

Gonzalez recalled doing arduous rebar installation and other reinforcement work for hours on hot and humid afternoons without any access to water, and says he is still owed money for six hours of overtime work that he did in January.

He says he was not offered any safety training and had to pay out of pocket for safety gear necessary to the jobs he was assigned.

On June 1, Gonzalez decided he had had enough, and joined with a group of four other striking Borders workers. The group formed Justice & Respect in the Reinforcing Industry Coalition (JRRIC), and are now fighting for policy change and stricter enforcement of regulations in the construction industry.

"How about policies?" Gonzalez asked. "Make sure all the policies are in place and they're enforcing those policies. You need to go by the rules. Make sure everybody is doing what they're supposed to be doing."

Gonzalez joined workers like Gonathon Lee and Alejandro Garcia, who walked off the job at a construction site at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in January, and Caleb Sanderlin and Jared Clinton, who began the strike in 2016.

In Monday's press conference, the group went public, suggesting that city staff create a point system to encourage developers to prove they are following state and federal labor laws and adopt reasonable contractor policies to provide just, equitable and safe worksites for their construction workforce.

Despite the perception that construction jobs are "good," blue-collar jobs, researchers working on Building a Better South found quite the opposite. Defining a "good" construction job as one that pays at least $15 an hour and offers adequate safety training and workers' compensation, the study found that about four out of every five construction workers in the South are working jobs lacking at least one of those three provisions, and often lack all of them.

"Our economy has obviously picked back up and construction is a core job creator in the South, but unfortunately, it's a low-wage job creator," said Jackie Cornejo, who co-authored the report. "We really wanted to capture what does it mean to be a construction worker in the South and what are the opportunities and challenges to being able to transform this into a high-road industry given that so many construction dollars nationally come from work in the South."

click to enlarge Jackie Cornejo speaks at the June 26 press conference. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Jackie Cornejo speaks at the June 26 press conference. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Cornejo said that, although she's worked for years with the Partnership for Working Families, a coalition of 17 affiliate advocacy groups throughout the country, she was still taken aback at some of the stats she found regarding the dangers faced by construction workers, especially in the South.

"Unfortunately, as the construction industry is growing the number of injuries and fatalities has also grown with that figure," Cornejo said.

"The fact that a construction worker dies every nine hours in the United States is appalling and it is something that we should be remembering. When we talk about the most dangerous industries, we are accustomed to hearing about mining and law enforcement, even waste and recycling, but construction is also on that list."

In 2015, more than 900 construction workers were killed on the job, the most since 2008. Cornejo credits the lack of proper training with a recent spike in injuries and fatalities.

According to the study, just 11 percent of construction workers in Charlotte have had formal construction training, and of that small amount, more than half had to seek out that training on their own and pay for it out of their own pockets.

Cornejo said these numbers, mixed with the lack of workman's compensation and health insurance in the industry, leaves workers especially vulnerable.

"The level of safety training that is not happening in the industry across the board I think is one of the signs that points to why this injury and fatality rate is so high in the industry," she said. "Most workers aren't getting basic OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] training. If they want safety equipment, oftentimes workers have to pay that out of pocket, on top of them already not earning a decent wage to support their families."

Cornejo, who lives in California, said she was struck by the employer practices she saw while researching the construction industry in the South, because she's familiar with the same employers implementing better practices in areas where more attention is paid to potential violations of workers' rights.

"In terms of the scope of the work the Partnership does nationally, contractors know that they have to do right by their workers and communities in places like California and New York. But when they come to the South, they don't play by those same rules," she said. "This is why it's really important to make sure the South isn't a place where contractors can break the rules, when we know that they can do better elsewhere."

Violations by third-tier contractors like Borders Rebar can often go overlooked, as they are twice removed from the protective language included in any contract worked out between an owner or developer and a general contractor or construction manager.

Management at Borders did not respond to requests for a comment for this story.

As far as OSHA, the department is often too overwhelmed to effectively police the industry, with about 2,200 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers at more than 8 million worksites. Members of JRRIC say they no longer see OSHA as an effective agency.

That's why they want to see something done at the local level.

At Monday night's press conference, despite some early confusion that nearly made the coalition of advocates miss their chance, each was finally able to speak to the mayor and council.

While many workers are fearful to speak publicly for fear of retaliation by their employer, the soft-spoken Gonzalez made his issues known, repeating his line about being proud to build Charlotte's future but not of Charlotte's history of unsafe employer practices.

He was visibly nervous after speaking, taking deep breaths as he stood in the corner and watched his fellow workers and advocates address council. He said that he hopes the press conference and following public forum will make a difference, because he is eager to get back to work, but refuses to return to the conditions he once faced.

He said he is optimistic that he will be able to return to work sometime soon, but is discouraged that management at Borders has refused to communicate with his group.

"I hope they have something to say now," he said.

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