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Labor Advocates Rally After Wage Theft Allegations

People by sign
Three people stand with a sign at a car rally protesting wage theft allegations at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Workers and advocates gathered on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus and drove downtown, honking their horns in protest of wage theft allegations at several VCU construction sites and at the site for the new General Assembly building.

Members of the regional carpenter’s union and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy are calling on local officials, including VCU President Michael Rao, to more directly address workers’ concerns.

For months, workers say they have not gotten worker’s compensation and overtime pay, and they haven’t had taxes deducted from their paychecks, despite many of them meeting IRS criteria for full-time employment.

Frank Mahoney, communication director for the Eastern Atlantic State Regional Council of Carpenters, said in an interview Friday he hopes the car rally will force the university and other local authorities to address these concerns.

“There are leaders at campuses like VCU, big organizations that hire people that are supposed to be upholding that community, making things better. We want to make sure that they know we're there, that we're not giving up on this fight about wage theft and misclassification,” he said.

Mahoney said the rally was a kick-off for a “Tax Fraud Week of Action,” meant to draw attention to the social and economic impacts of tax fraud and employee misclassification.

At the Richmond construction sites, a disproportionate number of the workers being impacted are Latino immigrants, whose migration status is often used by employers to extort them into accepting predatory payment practices.

Beyond the personal impact on workers, experts say wage theft is detrimental to the local and state economies. Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Interfaith Center, says addressing these issues now is important as the country recovers from the economic downturn of the pandemic.

“What's more important than actually making sure that workers get every penny of their paycheck, right?” she said. “If we can make sure that these workers get all their money, it will help stimulate the economy.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for VCU denied the allegation that the university misclassified workers because the university does not directly employ them. Workers are recruited through labor brokers and construction contractors, which are hired by VCU.

“Allegations that VCU is misclassifying workers so as to negatively affect their wages are inaccurate and unrelated to campus projects. The core issue behind the allegation is the use of independent contractors by General Contractors on large construction projects,” said VCU spokesman Mike Porter.

In his email, Porter also pointed to the use of subcontractors on large construction projects as a way for VCU to “support small and diverse businesses.” One of those businesses, which is Latino-owned and worked on VCU’s new Gladding Residence Center, told VPM in November it does not pay workers overtime, despite hiring them to work nearly 50 hours per week.

VPM also reached out to the Virginia Department of General Services for comment regarding the allegations made at the General Assembly construction site, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Editor's Note: We've updated Mahoney's official title.