Easthampton City Council to consider wage theft ordinance

  • Easthampton Municipal Building at 50 Payson Ave.  FILE PHOTO

  • Owen Zaret FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2019 3:12:28 PM
Modified: 7/26/2019 3:12:18 PM

EASTHAMPTON ⁠— The city is exploring new rules that would require construction employers who are either hired by the city or receive municipal tax relief to abide by a set of conditions in an effort to discourage wage theft.

The proposed amendment to the city ordinances is set for a public hearing in front of the City Council on Aug. 7. It requires any bidder, proposer, contractor or subcontractor receiving public funds or tax relief to sign an affidavit stating they will abide by wage laws, attempt to meet certain diversity requirements and submit detailed records of employee work to the city.

City Councilor Owen Zaret said the proposal comes at a time when the city is planning to fund multiple construction projects. He said having rules on the books to protect construction workers from theft was an important step going forward.

“I think it’s important to make a statement through … municipal projects in Easthampton that (workers) are classified, covered and paid appropriately,” Zaret said. “It’s about fairness for workers and workers’ rights.”

Too often, he said, contractors classify laborers as independent contractors instead of employees — allowing them to not have to pay employer taxes on workers or provide employment insurance such as workers’ compensation. There can also be instances of workers not being paid for the amount of hours worked, he said.

Though Zaret said he was not personally aware of any such activity happening in Easthampton, he believes the city should follow the example of other cities like Springfield, which passed a similar ordinance in 2018.

Under the proposal, contractors hired for work by the city must prove, on a weekly basis, that they have not been debarred or found to be in violation of labor laws in the past five years, provide accident insurance, classify workers as employees, pay fair wages and give employment preference to Easthampton residents.

It also requires contractors to attempt to meet diversity requirements, provide the city with employee work logs, comply with state health and hospitalization requirements and submit certified payrolls weekly to the city procurement office.

If a contractor is found to be breaking the rules, the city could end work on a project until the issue is resolved, withhold payment, terminate a contract and issue a fine amounting to 5-percent of the contract’s total value, according to the proposal. 

If a contractor is receiving financial relief through tax increment financing (TIF) or the housing development incentive program (HDIP), they are subject to similar obligations and would be responsible for paying back any tax break they received to the city if found to be in violation of terms. Any proposal or bid on a project by a contractor who does not comply with the conditions will be rejected.

Lisa Clauson, director of strategic partnerships at the Carpenters Labor Management Program, said she has worked on similar proposals in the past and first reached out to the city regarding the issue.

“This is not going to end wage theft in our industry, but it does demand more accountability when public money is used,” Clauson said.

Diversity in construction jobs, she said, was as equally important as protecting workers’ rights. The ordinance mandates that contractors prove they have made an effort to provide employment in the amount of 15.3 percent of hours worked to people of color, 6.9 percent to women and 5 percent to veterans.

Numbers like these may seem arbitrary, she said, but they mirror state equal employment opportunity goals for projects receiving public money.

“[It] gets at changing and bringing this industry into the century we are in now for municipalities,” she said of the proposal.

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said that, ultimately, if a complaint was brought against a contractor alleging a violation of these rules, she would make the decision on whether to hold them accountable.

“You’re looking at those dollars, those public dollars — they need to be used wisely for the public good,” LaChapelle said. “We’re not private developers, we serve our constituents.”

She said an ordinance like this would improve both the quality of work performed and of the workers’ lives themselves, as they would be given “a fair shake.”

“We talk a lot about the middle class being squished, (about) people being able to make a decent wage or having a decent place to live,” she said. “We have to walk the talk.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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