Construction unions and nonunion immigrant workers asserted their collective power Wednesday morning in Thief River Falls to protest wage theft, exploitation, and labor trafficking. They are accusing General Contractor McShane Construction of not protecting concrete workers employed by subcontractors on the publicly-supported Digi-Key Expansion Project.
According to a statement from Digi-Key, the expansion project will be a "four-story product distribution center will provide an additional 2.2 million square feet of usable space to the company's existing Thief River Falls facilities, and will occupy an overall footprint of 1 million square feet. The initial investment is projected at more than $300 million.”
The project received $44 million in state subsidies, expecting to create high-quality jobs for area workers.
Workers claim they are owed thousands of dollars in back wages as well as suffering verbal abuse, discrimination, and in one case, failure to provide medical care following an injury. Millennium Construction, the subcontractor in question, is the subject of an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.
In a statement, the construction unions explained the reason for the action.
"LIUNA Minnesota & North Dakota, Cement Finishers Local 633, and the Northwest Minnesota Building Trades will not stand by and allow fellow construction workers to be exploited, especially on a construction project supported by Minnesotans’ hard-earned tax dollars. We believe that McShane has the means to either compel Millennium Concrete to remedy these problems or to use retainage from your contract with Millenium to directly pay back wages owed to the company’s employees.”
Supported by unions the immigrant workers demanded that McShane take the following steps to resolve outstanding issues and prevent future abuses:
- Closely monitor Millennium Concrete’s work going forward to ensure that all workers are paid for all hours worked at applicable prevailing wage rates.
- Require Millennium Concrete to file a plan within two weeks for timely payment of back wages based on employees’ estimates of hours worked as concrete laborers or concrete finishers, as verified by industry experts identified by unions that represent laborers, cement finishers, carpenters, and ironworkers.
- Require Millennium Concrete to immediately pay back wages to employee Jairo Cruz for hours lost due to a workplace injury, and pay wages going forward until his Workers Compensation case is resolved, based on average hours for Millennium employees on the project.
- Withhold funds sufficient to cover 100% of potential claims for back wages until all such claims have been paid.
- Provide job site access to organizations that represent construction workers -- including but not limited to unions that represent laborers, cement finishers, carpenters, and iron workers, as well as immigrants’ rights organizations such as the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) -- in order to verify compliance with applicable law and regulation.
In a statement, Digit-Key responded to the complaints
"Digi-Key was very recently made aware of allegations involving a subcontractor working on the Digi-Key expansion project. We are working with our general contractor to understand the issue and will continue to monitor the situation." Furthermore stating, "We will continue to monitor the process with McShane and their subcontractors. We would not condone the activities suggested in the allegations and expect McShane and their subcontractors to resolve any issues in question fairly."
Problems have dogged construction of the 2.2 million-square-foot facility under the management of General Contractor McShane Construction Company.
In mid-November, the project saw the tragic death of an Iron Worker due to injuries sustained on the job. Injuries continue to plague the worksite.
Worker Claims in Depth
Immigrant workers accuse subcontractor Millennium Concrete of underpaying them and mistreating them over the past year. Among other things, they are demanding payment of back wages and better treatment. Workers reported their experiences on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation:
Latino Millennium Concrete workers say that they’ve been paid less and treated differently than other employees doing similar work for the same employer.
"I’ve noticed how it’s different for Hispanic workers and American workers...they give preference to the American workers -- better pay, better treatment, everything is better for them than for the Hispanic workers.”
Millennium employees say they have been shorted on hours, and substantially underpaid for hours worked placing and finishing concrete.
“That week we didn’t work very much, I worked 39 hours, but I was only paid for 35... It feels bad because I’ve worked for the company for four years, and the problems with the hours are nothing new. It’s been happening for quite a while. Hours go missing, and you try to get them back. I’d say it doesn’t matter to them whether you’re short."
One Millennium Concrete employee reported sustaining a severe injury on the job but receiving no medical treatment and working hurt until he couldn’t keep going. After he brought a note from a chiropractor, the employee said Millennium wouldn’t let him return to work, and office staff acted as if they didn’t know who he was even though he is listed on the company’s payroll reports.
“On Thursday, December 6, I was working on the measurement to set up rebar. I stumbled over the pins that protruded from the trays where the concrete was poured... I continued working on the project until December 22, when we went on vacation, despite the continuous pain... The supervisors saw me walking with a limp, but never offered to help... [By January 10,] the pain was so bad that I fell to the ground while working... On Friday, January 25, I went to a chiropractor, as I do not have insurance and could not afford a doctor... On Monday, January 28, I went to the Millennium office in Iowa City with [the note]...... But when I called the office the next day, the person who answered told me that there was no one by [my name] working for the company, as if I did not exist [and the supervisor] told me they did not want me back working for the company.”
Neither Millennium Concrete nor McShane Construction responded for comment.
Unions and immigrant workers hope that the state-subsidized project will match the promise of being a "Greater Minnesota success story."