Holyoke City Council nixes wage theft ordinance

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/23/2021 4:11:43 PM
Modified: 12/23/2021 4:11:28 PM

HOLYOKE — City councilors fell one vote shy on Tuesday of making Holyoke the latest local community to adopt an ordinance that would create stiff penalties for contractors caught stealing wages from their workers.

The ordinance, which the Carpenters Union has supported across the region, would have precluded contractors found guilty of wage theft from bidding on city contracts for up to three years. The rule would have applied only to public projects in excess of $50,000. It was intended to prevent the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, to ensure that employers are complying with prevailing-wage and other laws, and to assure that contractors “provide opportunities for Holyoke residents, veterans, people of color and women.”

In recent years, a series of neighboring communities have passed similar ordinances, including Amherst, Easthampton, Northampton, and Springfield.

Holyoke fell short of taking the same step, however, after four councilors voted against the measure on Tuesday night. The final vote was 8 to 4, failing to muster the supermajority of nine votes required to pass an ordinance. It was the full council’s last meeting of the year.

Those voting against the ordinance were Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon and at-large councilors Michael Sullivan and Howard Greaney. At-large Councilor James Leahy was absent for the vote.

Some city officials had expressed opposition to the legislation prior to Tuesday’s vote in a subcommittee meeting, saying the ordinance would be difficult to enforce or burdensome for businesses and city staff.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Chief Procurement Officer Lori Belanger spoke out in opposition to what she called “cumbersome language” that she said could be a problem for private development or tax incentives in the city.

“We don’t have a problem in the city, and we’re not going to have a problem in the city as long as I’m the chief procurement officer,” Belanger said.

Many speaking in favor of the ordinance said that wage theft is a big problem locally.

Scott Goulding, a lifelong Holyoker and union carpenter for 33 years, said that it is something those in his industry “see all the time.”

“This ordinance has been used in a lot of other cities and towns,” Goulding said. “I’d like my hometown to follow suit and do the same thing. It’s the right thing to do and it makes a lot of sense.”

Juan Valencia Rojas, a Hatfield resident, said he experienced hardship several years ago after a construction contractor didn’t pay him after four months of work on a job. Speaking in Spanish with a member of the public interpreting, he urged councilors to pass the ordinance.

“We have found through our discussions that wage theft is a huge problem in the commonwealth,” At-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi, the chair of the ordinance subcommittee said.

In fiscal year 2021, the state’s attorney general’s office issued $1,985,000 in penalties and restitution for wage theft against 115 employers in the construction industry. Across all industries, the AG’s office ordered employers to pay $5 million in restitution and $3.1 million in fines for wage theft and other exploitation of workers.

A study released this year by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center found that wage theft, exploitation of undocumented and other workers, illegal misclassification of workers, tax fraud and under-the-table cash payment of employees are widespread in the state’s residential construction projects.

The council sent the ordinance back to its ordinance subcommittee for future review.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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