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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
A Roof Over Their Heads
December 29, 2004
by Allison Herrera
About three and half years ago, Jeff Farnam remembered, it was a particularly bad spring because of all the hailstorms and rain. That’s why he called SELA roofing and remodeling to reshingle his roof and install new gutters and downspouts, a $23,000 job.
All that week, he said, the entirely Latino crew arrived at sunup and left at
sundown, working much more than eight-hour days. In about a week, he had a new
roof. The only problem, he said, was with the downspouts and gutters, the only
part not done by the Latino crew. Water began to leak into the house, and Farnam
asked SELA to pay for the damage and part of the repair. Farnam said SELA agreed
over the phone, but the bill that arrived later was for the full amount. SELA
officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Twin Cities roofing companies, however, have received more serious allegations.
In many cases, roofing crews front the cost for all the materials from their
own wage. Roofing crews often do not get overtime pay for sunup-to-sundown days,
nor insurance if they are injured on the job, nor do they have any recompense
if they are not paid.
“I remember not being paid and there was nothing I could do about it,”
said one worker who could not reveal his identity for fear of repercussions.
Several other roofing workers, all Latino and mostly undocumented, offered similar
stories of mistreatment from area roofing companies, but would only speak off
Because of the discrimination they face working for mainstream companies, many
Latinos have started their own businesses. Jose Acosta, a native of Chihuahua,
Mexico, has had his own roofing business for nearly 15 years after being disgusted
with the way Latino workers were treated by the roofing industry.
“Its very slow right now,” he said, with temperatures below zero,
so he supplements his income with his work as a Mariachi bandleader.
Acosta worked for roofing companies until he learned what he needed and then
moved on. He experienced firsthand what people at Centro Legal and the Carpenters
Union talked about. He remembers not being paid and knew others who weren’t
paid as well, but none of them had the power to complain. He also said that
most of the time he and his co-workers were employed without workers’
compensation and insurance. Now, with his own roofing company, Acosta pays his
workers what they deserve, and they have workers’ compensation.
The crews performing these labor-intensive jobs, mostly Latino and sometimes
undocumented, said companies take advantage of their fragile legal status to
pay low wages, deny wages if the boss finds their work to be inadequate, or
claim no responsibility when workers are injured.
few roofers are getting paid enough to comply with the law,” says Jorge
Seveerdra of Centro Legal, a low-cost legal firm that serves the Latino community
in the Twin Cities. The reason workers accept such abuse, he said, is because
they are often not aware of the laws and protections afforded to them, and because
they are undocumented or have unresolved immigration issues. Over the past couple
of years he and others at Centro Legal noticed many complaints involving roofers
not being paid, complaints backed up by other agencies.
Under Minnesota overtime law and the new Fair Pay Overtime Initiative, a worker
who makes less than $23,660 a year, or $455 a week, is guaranteed overtime protection.
Also, a worker who works more than 48 hours per week is required to get overtime.
How much is overtime pay? It is one and a half that employee’s regular
rate of pay. In other words, a roofer who works more than four days of sunup
until sundown hours is entitled to one and a half times their regular pay, according
to the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act.
Minnesota Department of Labor also has clear guidelines about workers compensation.
Under Minnesota Statute 176.021, every employer is liable to pay compensation
if an injury, or death, occurs on the job. The definition of “employer”
is very clear: one who hires others to perform services.
James Honerman with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry said that
not only are roofing companies required to have insurance, but sub-contractors
who hire their crew are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance
as well. SELA roofing has had four serious violations in the last six months,
including fall protection, head protection and demolition practices. Honerman
also agrees that roofing is high hazard work and has the highest incidence of
Charlie Duremberger works in the state office which licenses and regulates residential
contractors. Over the course of one year, his office might hear about 1,500
formal complaints against construction, roofing and siding companies; they might
take serious action against 200-300 of them. “There are bad actors wherever
you look,” Duremberger remarked when asked if roofing was the only industry
that presents occupational hazards. His office dealt with a couple of complaints
brought forth by Centro Legal about wages not being paid. In this case, the
roofing company in question wasn’t even licensed with the state, making
it very difficult for their office to prosecute.
According to Centro Legal, roofing companies typically sell you, the consumer,
a roof repair job. You agree on the price, the contract is signed and a crew
shows up at your house. Good roofing companies—and there are many—then
send a crew that is adequately trained, paid and insured. Shady companies, both
workers and experts said, subcontract that work to the lowest bidder for a percentage—a
subcontractor who often hires his or her own subcontractor who hires a subcontractor
who hires a crew boss who hires the crew who do the actual work on your house.
Each subcontractor is taking his or her cut out of the original bid. Finally,
whatever is left over is paid to the crew—after the crew has paid for
its own materials.
Many cases Jorge has seen involve a worker who has not been paid for the two
to three weeks of work they’ve done, and the subcontractor who has hired
them has disappeared. They often know only their first name and maybe the kind
of car they drove.
“What we see happening are the standards and business ethics getting worse
with each layer of subcontractor who has taken the job and finally hires the
crew,” says Seveerdra.
Seveerdra believes that almost all of the time, the work is done on a handshake,
no contracts are signed and the roofers are paid in cash. All of these factors
make it difficult to recover unpaid wages.
not illegal to subcontract out work. What is illegal is not paying your crew
an adequate wage—the minimum wage is $5.25 an hour—or withholding
their pay. It’s also illegal to hire someone who is without papers, but
one way to circumvent this is to employ them as what’s called a 1099 worker.
In that case no papers are asked for. Therefore, it is illegal to withhold wages
even if the person is undocumented or has no work papers.
Phil Askvig is the director of organizing at the St. Paul Carpenters Union.
He agrees with Seveerdra’s assessment about the low wages being paid to
a crew, and the withholding of pay.
“If you’re undocumented, that can mean pulling the rug out from
under you,” he said. He explains that if you are hired as a 1099 worker,
a company isn’t required to check for your papers, pay your workman’s
compensation and make sure you are paid at all. This is because you are hired
as if you are a company and not an individual employee who is performing services.
“Roofing has the highest accident incidence rate, and has the highest
workers’ compensation rate,” says Askvig. How high? 120 percent
is the going workers’ compensation rate.
Askvig also explains that workers most of the time don’t get paid by the
hour, but get paid by the job. The fee is determined by how large of an area
needs to be re-roofed.
Seveerdra says he and his firm at Centro Legal believe the companies know that
this is common practice, but are turning a blind eye because it would mean lowering
the amount of money they receive for a job.
“On the surface it doesn’t appear that they are breaking any laws.
It’s common to hire out subcontractors to do your work.”
The cost of roofing work to you as a consumer has gone up, but the pay to workers
and subcontractors has gone down. Seveerdra believes the explanation is plain
and simple greed.
“They’ve created an ideal situation where there is more demand for
roofing work, therefore they can raise the price, but bid out the job at the
lowest price, driving the cost of the wages down,” he said.
Seveerdra believes that most of the time the roofing companies don’t even
know what they are paying the people doing the actual work. He also says that
just because the cost of the job is higher doesn’t necessarily mean you’re
getting a better roof, it just means that the company is getting a wider profit
Roofing companies almost never have their own in-house crew. Because it is temporary,
and seasonal work, it would be costly for them to keep a crew employed all year
around, including when there was no work. A roofing company like SELA primarily
only employs sales people.
Centro Legal has been trying to bring various roofing companies to court for
exploiting labor, but have so far been unsuccessful because of the many layers
that were involved in hiring the crew in the first place.
It’s also difficult for them to win cases when a worker doesn’t
get paid because roofing is so seasonal, like agricultural work. Therefore a
person who has a legitimate complaint might not be able to wait around until
the case goes to trial. They will have to move to where the weather is better
to get more roofing work. Some Latinos follow a pattern of moving to wherever
the work is, like Florida, Texas and California in winter, and places like Minnesota
in the summer.
Phil Askvig also believes it’s because they have unresolved immigration
issues and are afraid of coming forward. He says it is getting better. He also
says more people are starting to seek out the Carpenters Union, which is building
an alliance with Centro Legal.
all this newfound morality sweeping the country, maybe people will have the
courage to say that the way we are treating these people isn’t right,”
The roof is probably the most important part of your house. It shelters you
from the cold, the snow, the rain and even the sun. Construction is a booming
business in the Twin Cities, and low interest rates mean more people are buying
houses. More houses means there will be more demand for roofing, and for a labor
force that is willing to work regardless of the risks.
In the middle of winter, it may be hard to imagine people working from sunup
to sundown to reshingle your roof. But come spring, when people want their winter
damage repaired, Centro Legal officials recommend asking roofing companies how
much of the cost will go to the people slinging the hammers. ||
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