At the Wage and Hour Division, we often go to great lengths to enforce a variety of federal labor laws that protect over 135 million workers in more than 7.3 million establishments nationwide. In one recent case, however, we literally went to great heights to fulfill our mission!
Our commitment to ensuring that a fair day’s work earns a fair day’s pay was recently tested during an investigation of a federally-funded construction project in Seattle. When investigators arrived at the Insignia Seattle towers condominium project to interview workers, they quickly saw that there was no easy access to the 37th floor – the only place where work was being performed at that time.
In order to reach the “top deck,” investigators would first have to brave a temporary metal cage lift attached to the exterior of the commanding façade – but even that would only get them to the 32nd floor. They would have to climb a staircase to get up the last five floors.
Going up inside that cage was quite a ride! At each floor, only temporary wooden barriers prevented falls. As they traveled further up, they saw several workers on the periphery of the building clipped into harnesses for safety. Next came the five flights of concrete stairs, which were held up by a rough wooden plank railing. Once at the top, they observed concrete workers carefully standing on top of a mesh of rebar placed over a support platform as they were pouring concrete and skillfully dispensing it into place as needed.
One of the investigators, Katherine Walum, is afraid of heights but realized this would be her best opportunity to obtain statements from the employees she needed to reach. She needed to face her fears to get the job done. “I might have shed one or two tears on the way up but the fear slid away as the purpose of the visit and the interviews came into focus,” she said. “The once-in-a-lifetime, million-dollar view from the top was also helpful.”
Walum and a team of 19 other investigators visited numerous construction work sites in the Seattle area as part of an initiative to promote compliance with prevailing wage laws. In all, the team carried out 23 investigations that found more than $860,000 in back wages and damages were owed to more than 250 workers.
In addition, the team will make recommendations to debar contractors that were found to have willfully violated the law. The team is also securing enhanced compliance agreements with two top-tier employers that had failed to monitor and ensure compliance among their lower-tier subcontractors, to ensure they take additional steps toward future compliance with the law.
Our efforts resulted in significant outcomes that will help many workers and their families in and around Seattle. To all of them, the results of our enforcement actions are just as clear and beautiful as was the view from the 37th floor.
David Miljoner is regional enforcement coordinator for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco.