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AISD subcontractor workers potentially underpaid

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

An Austin Independent School District subcontractor might have shortchanged its workers by more than $12,000 in total for a project that was contracted in 2009. If settled as is, it could potentially be the largest case of wage noncompliance within AISD in five years.

At last Monday’s regular meeting, AISD board members took up the wage compliance complaint for the first time. The disagreement is between Austin-based mechanical contractor Fox & Hearn Inc and 13 former employees. The employees charge that due to hourly wage misclassification, they received about $11 per hour although they were supposed to be paid $23 per hour.

Matt Gonzalez – a union construction worker and part of AISD’s Community Bond Oversight Committee, which originally reviewed the disagreement – said the dispute “raised a few flags” for CBOC members about the entire contracting process. The CBOC is an advisory subcommittee made of up voluntary members who help oversee district bond-funded projects.

According to board documents, Fox & Hearn was brought on as a subcontractor under American Constructors Inc., the contractor assigned to build AISD’s recently completed Performing Arts Center in the Mueller development. The project was funded with money from a 2008 bond, and the dispute lies with wage rates contracted in May 2009.

Gonzalez, who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, said he inquired about AISD staff’s current policy on wage compliance enforcement and monitoring policy, given the time lag between the contracted wages and the project’s completion date.

“(The AISD staff members) basically do random sampling of projects just on a whim – obviously with the agenda item before you, that current system doesn’t work,” he told the board.

The issue was brought to AISD’s attention originally by the Equal Justice Center, an Austin-based advocacy group that provides volunteer legal services for low-income residents. On June 30, the Justice Center filed a complaint with the district on behalf of three workers who claimed they performed more work than their classification entailed, and thus were not being paid the agreed-upon prevailing wage rate — a requirement in AISD contracts. This led AISD to the discovery of an additional 10 workers who might also have been misclassified.

At the meeting, Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley admitted there were no “standard parameters” around the classifications under review, but that it was AISD’s general practice to pay the higher wage rate in this circumstance. The disputed classifications were HVAC Sheet Metal Worker, HVAC Sheet Metal Helper, and General Laborer.

Ron Janecka, an employee with Fox & Hearn, also stepped forward during public comment and asked the board to forgo disciplinary action, which would prompt AISD to withhold payment to the contractor until the matter was settled between the two parties.

“We followed the lower wage rate for sheet metal workers and felt we were in compliance. There are no definitions for work classifications issued,” Janecka said. “I’m here to ask that you don’t penalize us for the fact that we went with the lower classification listed for the same work.”

District 6 Trustee Paul Saldaña said that he was concerned about the lack of clarity AISD staff was providing to companies who do business with the district in regard to the prevailing wage rate requirements. He asked staff to leave “no room for misinterpretation” in the future and encouraged contractors to ask questions.

Board members approved the item unanimously. AISD will now withhold the disputed wage amount until the issue is settled, which is expected to occur within a 15-day deadline. Conley said the issue will most likely be resolved between the contractor and the worker in arbitration; however, if it is not settled, AISD can assign penalties.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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