In downtown Seattle, a 63-unit apartment building due to open next year will address one of the city's biggest needs: housing for the homeless, whose swelling ranks recently led the mayor to declare an official state of emergency. The building is called Sylvia's Place, named for one of the founders of the local nonprofit Plymouth Housing Group, which drew on the City of Seattle's housing levy to fund the $17.5 million project. Plymouth is a veteran local nonprofit that builds and operates apartments specially designed to help people transition out of homelessness.
But Ivan Sanchez, a 29-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico who helped build Sylvia's Place, says a subcontractor failed to pay him and his construction worker colleagues their proper wages.
"It's kind of curious that they fuck us over to help others," Sanchez said in a recent interview, speaking through a translator working for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades while seated next to 32-year-old Jacinto Ramirez Reyes, another undocumented immigrant from Mexico who also helped build Sylvia's Place.
Both men told The Stranger they're willing to share their names—and their undocumented status—publicly in order to draw attention to this issue. The men worked for Puyallup-based VSA Construction, which handled rebar installation and subcontracted for Marpac, the general contractor for Plymouth, during the first half of 2015. Plymouth says a city inspector uncovered evidence of underpayment of workers in April, so the nonprofit and Marpac decided to pay a total of nearly $50,000 in wage restitution to 30 workers, including Sanchez and Reyes—though Plymouth has been unable to locate five of those 30 workers to deliver their checks. Elliott Bronstein of the City of Seattle's Office of Labor Standards said it opened an investigation into administrative wage theft and paid sick and safe time violations.
The Office of Housing would not confirm or deny Plymouth's findings, but said it is "committed to ensuring that our housing partners follow our prevailing wage policies. While instances of verified non-compliance in our many projects remain few, whenever allegations have arisen we have worked diligently with our partners to remedy the problem."
Reyes and Sanchez say that when they spoke out about the wage issues, their bosses at VSA threatened them with deportation. Sanchez says he continues to receive threatening phone calls that he believes come from VSA.
VSA Construction did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the deputy director of Plymouth Housing, Betsy Hunter, wrote in an e-mail that the owner of VSA says he fully paid his workers. Marpac and the City of Seattle's Office of Housing, which dispersed funds to Plymouth for the Sylvia's Place project, also did not respond to interview requests.
To its credit, Plymouth took swift action after workers, in April, complained about underpayment to the bilingual city inspector from the Office of Housing during a routine inspection on the job. "We immediately called together a meeting that included the city inspector, staff from the Seattle Office of Housing, and Marpac," said Hunter. She said VSA didn't keep proper records showing how much workers were paid. "We made the assumption that the owner of the company was not telling the truth," Hunter said, using "we" to describe both Plymouth and Marpac. "So we went ahead and cut checks."
And while Hunter says she hadn't heard of threats of deportation being made against the employees who spoke out about wage issues, a deliberate choice was made to hand the checks to the workers off-site "to protect them from retaliation."
Plymouth says they'll never allow VSA to work on one of their projects again. Hunter praised Marpac for "stepping up on this issue" and paying the $50,000, an amount they determined based on their own investigation.
Hunter said that since the incident, they "have increased security and tracking procedures at the job site to make sure that no worker is on-site without being signed in and are ensuring that all workers are fully paid for any work they've done on our project."
She said she isn't aware of any history of wage-theft issues on Marpac projects—and says the company has a "really good, solid system" for upholding labor standards. Marpac remains Plymouth's go-to contractor for its buildings, having worked on 18 buildings over 10 years, according to its website.
Reyes, a short, well-built man with a round face and thick mustache, describes himself as a campesino—the Spanish word for a small-scale farmer. He grew up near Oaxaca, Mexico, and speaks Triqui, Spanish, and not much English.
Asked how he ended up in downtown Seattle building the Sylvia's Place apartment building, Reyes started at the beginning, speaking through a translator. As a child, he said, "studying wasn't an option... My dad would tell us that going to school was for lazy people." He began working in the fields at age 7. After hearing from other migrants that there was more sustainable, higher-paying work in the United States, he headed north, all the way to Mount Vernon, Washington, where he worked as a cleaner. He now lives with his wife and three children—all of whom he hopes to send to college—in Lakewood.
I asked Reyes whether he'll continue working in construction. Amused, he smiled for a moment and then said he certainly won't because of how "they mistreat you"—maybe he'll go back to cleaning instead.
Sanchez is taller, with a boyish face, sharper features, and gelled hair. He said most of his family lives in Oregon, and 13 years ago, they brought him stateside as well, as the violence of the drug war ripped through the state of Guerrero, south of Mexico City. He moved to the Seattle area four years ago and worked landscaping jobs. Now he lives in Auburn with his two children and wife, who's pregnant with a third child. "I feel I was discriminated against on that project," he said in Spanish. Then, switching to English, he said, "I would just like a better future in the United States."
According to the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), the city inspector at Sylvia's Place, Emma Moreno, referred Reyes and Sanchez to the union for assistance. Moreno declined to comment for this story. The union (which doesn't formally represent either Reyes or Sanchez) maintains a huge chart on the walls of its South Seattle office tracking labor standards on Office of Housing–funded projects, and it uses bilingual organizers to assist workers on the job sites. City records show that its personnel have raised concerns about underpayment of workers on Office of Housing affordable-housing projects before.
Jeff Kelley, an organizer for the union, says the City of Seattle hasn't taken a strong enough stand against a pattern of employee underpayment on its affordable-housing projects. He says when contractors get caught underpaying workers, the Office of Housing needs to immediately refer the allegations to the Office of Labor Standards, which officially investigates wage theft, as well as the Seattle Police Department for potential prosecution.
"If I was a worker and I stole $10 from my employer, there's no doubt that would be prosecuted as theft," Kelley said. "But if an employer steals thousands of dollars from an employee, it's viewed as a mere mistake that needs to be fixed."
Kelley says this isn't the first time this issue has come up with a Marpac project. At Aurora Supportive Housing—a building with 87 units of low-income housing on Highway 99 that's handled by another nonprofit, the Downtown Emergency Services Center—a 2012 investigation by Moreno, the same Office of Housing inspector who uncovered employee underpayment at Sylvia's Place, ended in a Marpac subcontractor writing checks to more than a dozen drywall workers (again, all with Hispanic last names). Those checks were intended to make up for approximately $24,000 in underpayment, according to an Office of Housing memo shared with The Stranger by attorneys representing the workers.
As with Sylvia's Place, the response to the employee underpayment was to quietly write checks to the workers to compensate for underpayment. But Kelley says there should be an official public record of when this happens so that other construction project managers, particularly those relying on taxpayer funds like Plymouth Housing, "will have that information and be able to act."
Kelley claims Marpac's political connections allow it to remain in the good graces of the city and housing nonprofits. The mayor appointed Marpac's owner, Don Mar, to the influential Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee last year, along with Plymouth Housing Group's executive director, Paul Lambros. The mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The bottom line is that while Seattle's affordable-housing nonprofits have great intentions, according to Kelley, with the painters union, "they're in bed with some people who only care about one thing—making profits. And when it comes to labor standards, the city is more than willing to look the other way."