Pay Fight in Tech's Trenches

Supervisor Marco Antonio Perez, in a blue hardhat, listens for an air-driven
Supervisor Marco Antonio Perez, in a blue hardhat, listens for an air-driven "mole" to burrow its way to an open trench while other workers assist. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nerbin Rodriguez spent weeks digging ditches near Chantilly last summer for the benefit of Verizon Communications Inc., part of the estimated $20 billion fiber-optic cable system the company is building to bring its next-generation phone, television and Internet service to American homes.

All that shoveling by hand cost him $2,000 in unpaid wages, Rodriguez now alleges. Yet he and 22 other ditch-digging colleagues who sometimes seek work at a Fairfax County day-laborer site can't look to the telecommunications giant for their money. They must try to get it from a subcontractor three layers removed that hired Rodriguez for $100 a day with no contract or paperwork.

The situation casts light on the low-tech backbone of a high-tech project -- the casual laborers who are rounded up by subcontractors, sometimes bused across state borders to job sites and set to work digging ditches. Predominantly Hispanic, they work with few guarantees and often no benefits, and they typically are hesitant to come forward with problems, according to lawyers and advocacy groups.

In the case of Rodriguez and his colleagues, they were recruited by Hagerstown contractor Anthony Maxwell, who in turn had been hired by Fairfax County-based KCS Communications Inc. KCS had been hired by S&N Communications Inc. of Kernersville, N.C., which had been hired by Verizon to oversee the installation of fiber-optic cable in parts of Northern Virginia.

The group is now suing Maxwell in federal court for more than $25,000.

"We had worked so hard, and we have so little to show for it," Rodriguez said recently, speaking in Spanish through a translator.

Theirs is the second such case to be brought in the past year involving Northern Virginia day laborers doing cable-installation work. Last May, a Prince William County court ordered a Virginia Beach subcontractor to pay Leoncio Vite $1,138 for 110 hours of unpaid work involving fiber-optic cable installation.

Laura Stack, the lawyer representing Rodriguez and the others, said her Virginia-based legal aid organization is looking into two other sets of allegations involving two different cable subcontractors.

Maxwell, in an interview at his Hagerstown home, said the workers have received much of their money. At most they were owed about $3,000 total, he said, because KCS Communications was behind on payments to him. KCS officials did not respond to calls for comment after confirming that Maxwell had worked with their company until last summer.

"I certainly feel badly" if workers weren't paid, said Verizon senior vice president for network services Chris Creager, but "the responsibility lies directly with the person they are working for."

S&N Communications president and chief executive Allen Powell agreed, saying he might be "willing to help" once he had all the details.

"That's absolutely not supposed to happen," said Powell, who noted that he began as a ditch digger for cable in Mississippi and Louisiana. "Going and picking up people and not making them an employee is a definite no-no."

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