I talked to the few skilled union workers managing the scaffolding work. And I spoke to the workers actually doing the job: They were less skilled and getting paid in cash, at rates far below the prevailing wage.
It’s hard to imagine how these vulnerable workers would ever get access to D.C.’s paid family leave program under a system in which employers run the show, as some on the D.C. Council have proposed.
I’m a new dad who was born and raised in the District. My partner is using the federal Family Medical Leave Act to take unpaid leave to care for our 2-month-old. We need D.C.’s paid leave law because the unpaid FMLA leave puts families at financial risk. I worry about the carpenters, electricians and plumbers who don’t have any savings when they’re building their families. They can’t afford to take time to care for their spouses and children. We’re building this city, making it one of the richest in the country, and yet we feel like we’re being left behind.
In the District, buildings are going up everywhere, and union labor is almost non-existent compared with many cities with greater union density. I see what happens when contractors don’t hire union. In my work as an organizer, I support workers whose boss denied their wages and overtime pay, stole wages from them, illegally fired them or ignored their injuries on the job. I’ve also talked with hundreds of workers who are classified as independent contractors when it’s clear that they are employees, told where, when and how to do their work. I see builders who falsify certified payrolls on government work and undercut people’s pay. Many builders, subcontractors and the labor brokers they hire are all in on this game, repeatedly engaging in illegal employment practices. And yet they face few, if any, repercussions. They slip through the cracks because the penalties are low. Why would anyone trust them to manage a paid leave program that is important to our newborns, family members and the health of the workforce?
I felt obliged to testify that night because if the council replaces the Universal Paid Leave Act with a program managed by employers, unscrupulous employers will continue to manipulate the system and the workers who need leave the most won’t get it.
There is a shortage of skilled construction workers — a reality across the United States. I try to recruit high school students into apprenticeship programs but it isn’t easy, especially when it’s clear how much corruption exists in hiring, and how difficult it is to get the pay that you have worked hard to earn. The shortages will persist until the work becomes reliable, honest and well-paid.
All people want to know that their jobs will allow them to care for their family members — that’s why we go to work in the first place. Based on D.C. workers’ experiences with employer violations, we know it’s just too risky to leave paid leave benefits up to employers.
For these reasons, two steps are necessary: 1. The D.C. Universal Paid Leave Act should remain a social insurance fund that every D.C. private employer pays into and; 2. The D.C. government must take seriously illegal labor practices as we rebuild the nation’s capital, ensuring real enforcement. Right now, employer penalties mean nothing to the contractors.
We’re better than this.
Kunta Bedney lives in Ward 8.