by Laura Perez-Boston on Thu, 03/08/2012 - 11:02am 10 comments
Marvin Mundo and Marciano Cruz are members of Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center. They are also parents and hardworking Houstonians who did their fair day's work renovating Jane Long Middle School and Sharpstown High School, but never received their fair day's pay. Mundo and Cruz worked under the employment of Lawman’s Construction, a subcontractor for Fort Bend Mechanical, on these two Houston Independent School District (HISD) construction sites and, according to their reports, they are still collectively owed over $11,000 in unpaid wages a year later.
Mundo and Cruz came to the Worker Center almost a year ago after the work on both sites was completed in March of last year. They reported the issue to the Worker Center after multiple attempts to resolve it on their own with their employer, Lawman’s Construction. The workers were in contact with Ricky Peters, owner of Lawman’s Construction,
throughout March 2011, but since last April, their calls have gone unanswered. Worker Center staff made 6 attempts to call Peters, the last attempt in November 2011, and a certified letter regarding the claim was sent in December.
The Worker Center went on to contact HISD on behalf of Mundo and Cruz. The HISD Construction and Facility Services Department convened a meeting in January 2012 with Pete Metford of Fort Bend Mechanical and Ricky Peters of Lawman’s Construction. At the meeting, Peters indicated that he had paid his employees in cash, and he appeared to agree to pay their outstanding wages. As of this writing, the outstanding wages have not been paid.
Fort Bend Mechanical has a Similar History with Other Subcontractors
The Worker Center is also assisting five other construction workers, former employees of R & R Duct Installers who were subcontractors for Fort Bend Mechanical. They did duct work at a school in Atascocita, Texas and were not paid by R & R for their work. We, at the Center, are assisting them in recovering their unpaid back wages, and this case is now going to court.
It is additionally troubling to me to hear of these cases occurring on projects performed by Fort Bend Mechanical because of recent reports that allege that campaign contributions to school board members might play a role in winning construction contracts from the district. In an article in the Houston Chronicle, Ericka Mellon reported that Houston school board member Harvin Moore returned donated money following recent legal activity involving Fort Bend Mechanical. Mellon writes:
“Moore reported that in October  he returned a $2,500 campaign contribution he received in 2009 from Sharon Medford, co-owner of Fort Bend Mechanical. The Stafford-based construction company is being sued by a competing vendor who alleges Fort Bend Mechanical bribed HISD trustee Larry Marshall to land a school district contract.”
In my opinion, bribery allegations can create the perception that to get a contract you have to “pay to play”. In my mind, this perception could cast a shadow of doubt over the objectivity of the HISD Bond construction project as a whole.
Effect on Tax Payers and Responsible Businesses
Mr. Mundo and Mr. Cruz's families have been deeply affected by not receiving the income they were counting on. To wait for a year without being paid creates a real hardship on families, especially for the children. They were forced to ask for loans from family and friends to cover essential bills, and Mundo mentioned specifically that he was unable to buy his daughters a computer for their schoolwork.
The ripple effect of wage theft and payroll fraud continues much further beyond the directly affected family unit. While it is likely that all taxpayers are morally alarmed to see their dollars stolen from the hands building our children's schools, few make the connection that when employees are paid in cash “off the books”, we all lose payroll tax revenue for state and government coffers. Additionally, responsible companies vying for bids on the various projects are put at a competitive disadvantage and are undercut when employers like Lawman’s Construction evade their duties under the law.
This is only part of the story. Look for the steps HISD and others plan to take to address wage theft and payroll fraud in an upcoming post.