From StatesmanJournal.com, Peter Wong, 6 May 2011.
Oregon — Contractors furnishing workers for construction jobs would have to obtain state licenses and post bonds under a bill that split the Oregon Senate along party lines Thursday.
Senate Bill 612 went to the House with all 16 Democrats in favor and 13 of 14 Republicans opposed. The lone Republican was Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas, who was absent. He was the floor manager for a minority report substitute that the Senate rejected, also along party lines.
Advocates of the version that passed likened it to how the state Bureau of Labor and Industries licenses farm-labor contractors, which supply the workers for the actual work on farms.
The bill was introduced at the request of the Northwest Workers Justice Project and the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, which conducted a meeting March 31 in Woodburn to gather stories of contracted, temporary or part-time workers alleging abuses and complaining about unpaid wages.
The Oregon Center for Public Policy, based in Silverton, analyzed 1,664 wage complaints filed with the bureau between mid-2009 and mid-2010, and concluded that wages owed to workers topped $2.5 million. Sen. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, said the analysis reported that more than 20 percent of that $2.5 million — actually about $700,000 — arose from claims in the construction industry.
“Brokers often serve as intermediaries between the worker and the general-construction contractor,” said Bonamici, floor manager for the version that passed. “Bureau records show that workers under such an arrangement often rely on verbal agreements, do not receive overtime or prevailing wages when required — and sometimes they are not paid at all.”
Boquist said there is no disagreement among lawmakers that the problem must be dealt with.
He offered a substitute requiring such contractors to register as a business with the Corporation Division of the secretary of state.
“Our approach is very simple,” he said. “Let’s make them register, make them follow the law, and give the secretary of state teeth to make these illegally operating groups follow the law. Then, if that does not work, the next step is to broaden that authority. All of us agree there is a problem.”
But Ignacio Paramo, who works for the Voz workers’ rights education project in Portland, said the substitute did not go far enough to help workers. He said such labor contractors often disappear before workers collect their wages — or the labor contractors lack the money or the assets to pay the workers if there is a dispute with the construction contractor or subcontractor.
Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, said before the vote that the bill is tailored to deal with the most serious problem.
“We have started to see practices that, if you take out picking strawberries and put in framing houses, the structure is the same, the abuses are the same — and in some instances, the individuals exploiting workers are the same,” he said.
The Oregon farmworker union known by its Spanish acronym PCUN, based in Woodburn, has been active in the coalition.
“This issue is so big that we have people from the construction work force looking to us for help,” said Javier Lara, a community organizer for the union. “We have been collecting so many reports about this that we decided to join the coalition. This economy has created the perfect formula for exploitation of workers.”
pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745 or twitter.com/capitolwong