Carpenters Fighting Cash Coyotes
When Patrick Bieker joined the Southwest Carpenters, he spent most of his early career building schools all over southern California. “I’ve been on projects from Palmdale to downtown LA. Half my career was completing projects for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD),” said Bieker. In his first 12 years, Bieker worked on dozens of school projects as a general carpenter, and eventually as a foreman. In 2006, Bieker moved to Utah and saw the need to get involved. In all that time since, Bieker has contributed to just one school project in the state of Utah.
In Southern California, LAUSD bids fall under prevailing wage laws. This means they are governed by both federal and state prevailing wage laws (Davis-Bacon and Little Davis-Bacon). If a project is funded by taxpayer dollars, contractors should meet strict wage and health benefits standards, local hiring quotas, and safety requirements before they can even make a bid. Davis-Bacon laws have been protecting wage equality since 1931. For public projects where Davis-Bacon is followed, skilled Union contractors win the bids. Even in the worst economic times, LAUSD bids, and prevailing wage projects like them, can be the bread and butter of Union carpenters and signatory contractors.
Unfortunately, in states with no state prevailing wage laws, such as Utah, carpenters must fight a lot harder for a seat at the table. Unscrupulous contractors, sometimes known as ‘cash coyotes’ bid low and pay lower. “DAW and Standard Drywall are the only major interior systems union contractors in the state of Utah, but they don’t even bother to bid on school projects,” said Bieker. “They already know they can’t compete with the ‘cash coyotes.’ No matter what that piece of paper says about local hire or area wage standards, they’re paying in cash and cutting honest contractors completely out of the market,” he continued.
Non-union contractors hire sub-contractors or cash coyotes who then misclassify workers, evade payroll and other taxes, and don’t offer their workers health benefits. More than creating an unsafe and unskilled labor force, this practice cheats the community out of valuable funding and resources. employers, workers, and informed neighbors are fighting back.
Bieker laid out the facts for his neighbors at a recent Alpine District school board meeting along with UBC member Lynn Barney. A $900,000 bid for a school project would allocate roughly 60% of the funds for wages. Bieker estimated that would amount to anywhere between $500,000-$550,000 taxable wages, but in Alpine the actual taxed wages would be much lower. In Utah, cash coyotes can make a bid on a $900,000 project but avoid paying most of their taxes with the protection of a cash industry. Workers apply expecting to make $20-$22 an hour, but only make $15-$20. At times they get half their pay in the form of checks, at other times they don’t get paid at all. Since cash wages aren’t taxed and the few checks workers receive are often fraudulent, the actual taxed wages on the job could be as low as $200,000.
“If things are going to change then we’re going to have to get vocal. It’s up to our elected officials to enforce the laws but they won’t unless we make them. The general public is still unaware of what’s going on,” said Bieker. “The victory for us is when the public wants to learn more.”
Bieker says the most important thing a carpenter can do for their Union brothers and sisters is to stand tall and make their voices heard. He encourages Utah carpenters to join the Sea of Orange at the next district school board meeting.