A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Wage Theft and Payroll Fraud on HISD Construction Sites

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 [2011] 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.

Photo of Marvin Mundo and his children by Domingo Banda of La Semana News


Anonymous's picture

I commend the Interfaith Worker Justice for standing up for workers and helping them secure their just wages owed to them. And, I commend this important community organization for bringing awareness to this out of control problem affecting, not only the workers, but legitimate employers who can't compete with the business practices of these unscrupulous contractors.

Anonymous's picture

This group is just a front for getting workers rights for illegal wetbacks. They just need to round these people up and ship them back so they will not steal any more of our resources

Anonymous's picture

Your comment leads me to question whether you believe all human beings are equal and have a right to a dignified life. If we can't agree on that, then there's really not much more we can discuss.

Your comment also comes out of context. No where in this post are undocumented immigrants or immigration mentioned. If you are looking at the picture of Mr. Mundo and assuming because he has brown skin and a Latino-sounding surname that he is undocumented, I would respectfully encourage you to question why you made that assumption.

And finally, I'm not sure what the root of your anger is, but using racial epithets to demean and put down an entire race of people is unacceptable. Please revise your language.

There's much more to say on these subjects, but like I said, if we can't come to the most basic agreement that all human beings are equal, there's really no basis for any conversation going forward.


Don's picture

The majority of hispanics in the Houston area are illegal aliens who should not be able to get a job much less not get paid. I have no idea if they are legal or not, but since you dodged the question, I can assume they are not here legally. If they are owed money then they should be paid. If illegal, then pay them and send them to their home country. More than 60% of all the illegal aliens are receiving public assistance. Why should we want this? If they are on public assistance and clogging the hospitals for free care, how does this benefit the actual citizens of this country? It doesn't!!! This is another sub-class that taxpayers will have to subsidize. It is time to think with our brains and not with our emotions. If we don't, it will be the end for ALL of us.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the support!

Anonymous's picture

The robbed construction workers should submit their case to the National Labor Relations Board. A federal agency that protects workers rights.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the suggestion. Workers have a number of options in terms of agencies that can assist with wage claims (the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, the Texas Workforce Commission, Small Claims Courts and the Police). The National Labor Relations Board enforces the National Labor Relations Act which covers the right of workers to form a union, so they aren't really set up to address wage issues.

Anonymous's picture

This is an unfortunate situations that often results in a miscarriage of justice

Patriot's picture

The real issue here is are these workers legal?

If paid cash, why? Are they legal?

HISD is 100% responsible for not insuring that workers, on their project, receive fair treatment.

Secondly, does HISD receive any federal funds? Probably yes!

Were any federal funds used, even partially on the project? Probably yes!

If so why wasn't the Davis-Bacon act applied by HISD

They are the number one responsible party. HISD is the GUILTY party!

You can't expect contractors to police themselves.

HISD is 100% at fault!

CG's picture

I meet Fort Bend Mechanical through a work program with Sharpstown High School. I have been working for this company over 2 years. I was told in December 2012 that I was laid off. When I left the company I had 2 weeks pay in the hold. One of the administrator told me that I could file for unemployment. When I file for unemployment I was told that I had 8k in unemployment benefits. When I filed for the benefits I received 2 weeks benefits. After the 2 weeks the unemployment ceased. When I contacted TX Workfoce I was told that I was to start back to work on the January 7. I was not aware of the January 7 date and contacted Fort Bend Mechanical. I introduce myself and I was place on hold for a long, long time. I tried calling back on several occasions but was placed on hold again. One day I finally got through and was told that "I was in holding" meaning that they didn't have any work for me to do and they will give me a call. In the mean time I filed a second time for my unemployment. The agent told me that that they had to contact Fort Bend Mechanical to find out what happen on the 7th. To this day Fort Bend Mechincal has not respond. In the mean time I can't find a job, Fort Bend Mechanical will not pay my unemployment benefits, and Fort Bend Mechanical will not verify if I am laid off, in holding or fired. Fort Bend Mechanical has a reputation among the employees that don't want to pay unemploymente benefits so what they do... they just keep you in holding until you get tired of waiting or you have lost everything thay you may have and hoping that you fine another job so they won't have to pay. Fort Bend Mechanical should pay my unemployment beenfits until I find another job or they should work with TX Workforce and explain to them that the 2 weeks that were paid out was 2 weeks earned wages that was in the hold. I should have received my 2 weeks in the hold first then my unemploymen. I feel very strongly about the way that Fort Bend Mechanical has conducted itself as a business in the United States of America and most of all to its loyal employees. Fort Bend Mechanical should do what is right and pay the benefits and stop hiding behind their employees by not answering and returning calls. There should be a law and it should be enforced to the fullest for the people's rights when it comes to their hard earned wages. Fort Bend Mechanical should do the right thing by paying the benefits or get out of business.

anonymouse's picture

Was this article intended to be a smear piece on FBM. Why was that firm even brought in to the article. You state that each of the workers had a work related obligations with other companies while always tying the fact the FBM was the primary contractor. The sub contractor who hired the workers is the only one with any legal or moral obligation to meet payroll. This appears to be a smear campaign pure and simple against FBM.

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