Workers rally for justice in VCU contracting policies

Demonstrators against wage theft hold a banner that reads, " Shame on VCU." Photo courtesy of Frank Mahoney

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

Workers from the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters have been touting “Shame on VCU” signs around VCU’s Monroe Park Campus since July, gaining the attention of students and community members.

Greg Ackerman, deputy political director for EAS, said the group began the demonstrations to put pressure on VCU to acknowledge its part in what he calls “unfair business practices.”

“An institute of higher ideals like VCU should hire contractors that don’t exploit workers,” Ackerman said.

A report from the EAS states that more than 20 workers were interviewed between 2017 and 2020 who said they received paychecks with no deductions during construction on VCU buildings. Workers said they received payments while building the School of Engineering building, Gladding Residence Center, the Raleigh Building, the School of Allied Health and the VCU Health Adult Outpatient Hospital. 

Members of the EAS said they have not been directly harmed by these alleged business practices, but Ackerman said they feel a need to defend other workers in the industry. Ackerman said the EAS has been informing VCU about these issues for a year and has been disappointed by the lack of response from the school. 

EAS released a statement in July when the group began bannering on VCU’s campus. According to the release, wage theft occurs when contractors refuse to pay mandated time-and-a-half overtime wages, illegally take money out of a worker’s check or refuse to pay workers for a project. Wage theft also occurs when contractors misclassify workers as independent contractors, causing a larger tax burden to fall on the worker. 

“These labor brokers usually prey on the poor or immigrant labor who have nowhere else to turn,” the statement read.

Labor brokers provide client companies with workers. The employees work for the brokers, not for the client companies, so the jobs they get are not permanent.

VCU’s general terms and conditions from the Office of Procurement states that companies doing business with VCU may not hire “illegal alien workers.” The terms and conditions also bar contractors from withholding payment from subcontractors without providing reason and notifying both VCU and the subcontractors. 

The university did not immediately respond to comment regarding the EAS’ allegations. 

EAS is demanding that VCU hires responsible contractors that protect workers from wage theft. The release encouraged students and Richmond residents to learn more about labor practices on campus. 

Jason Wheeler, a representative of Carpenters Local 205, a subset of EAS, said in the release that VCU is complicit in matters of wage theft. Wheeler’s group represents the majority of Virginia and 10 counties in South Carolina.

“Labor brokers take advantage of the most vulnerable among us to provide savings for contractors and end users like VCU,” Wheeler said. “It has to end, and VCU has that power.”

Ackerman said VCU students have been supportive of the issue and that some had sent letters in solidarity with EAS to VCU President Michael Rao. 

“Many of them aren’t aware initially of this kind of activity on campus,” Ackerman said, “and I think VCU as a college relies on a lack of transparency in that sense.” 

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