Lawsuit accuses Denver builders of wage theft, sexual harassment and racism
SkyHouse Denver is a gleaming maze of glass and steel, 26 stories that stare down on Broadway across the street from the Brown Palace Hotel.
The luxury high-rise, which is slated to open this fall, markets its 354 apartments to “next generation professionals” who seek a “fantastic downtown Denver location with stunning views of the city.”
But SkyHouse Denver also markets itself to another group, one that isn’t looking for high-rise views, but a paycheck: vulnerable, easy-to-exploit immigrants, some brought in from out-of-state, who were hired to help build the project but are now being denied wages and facing both gender and race discrimination.
That’s according to the attorney for Towards Justice, an economic justice group, which filed a lawsuit in federal court last week seeking unpaid wages for six named plaintiffs and approximately 50 unnamed individuals in Colorado, plus another 50 in Tennessee at another job site. But the lawsuit claims that as many as 1,000 other workers may be owed for unpaid work.
Violeta Solis is one of those workers. She claims she was shorted more than 100 hours of pay, including overtime pay. When she asked a supervisor about the missing money, she was laughed at and called a “poor Mexican.” Other employees who tried to track down missing pay were given the runaround, sent from one supervisor to another. They never saw a dime of their missing money, according to the lawsuit.
Workers were often on the job seven days a week for up to nine hours per day. But they were never paid for overtime, which is required for more than 40 hours of work. Often they got paid for only some of the hours they worked, and some workers were paid less than the minimum wage required by state and federal laws, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, which attorney David Seligman told The Colorado Independent will seek class action status, names as defendants The Circle Group of Atlanta, LA Drywall of Florida, Colorado-based Javier Martinez Drywall, Gulf Coast Construction of Georgia and three individuals who acted as supervisors or agents on behalf of the drywall companies.
The lawsuit alleges that gender largely determined which workers hung drywall and which were assigned cleaning duties. Men without drywall experience were trained on how to hang drywall and paid accordingly. Women were assigned cleaning duties and paid less. Men and white women who did cleaning work, according to the lawsuit, were paid more for that work than Hispanic women.
This isn’t about pushing brooms or mopping floors, workers say. Cleaning work, assigned mostly to women, required them to lift heavy pieces of drywall and make constant trips to throw those materials into a dumpster, or to scrape debris off the floor. The work is considered more dangerous and physically demanding than hanging drywall.
Solis was told by one male supervisor that women were assigned to cleaning work because he felt “that was the best place for women.”
She was also subjected to frequent catcalls and other forms of sexual harassment. One supervisor stated in a meeting that “based on his religion, women shouldn’t be working in construction.” according to the lawsuit.
Other Hispanic workers were referred to by a supervisor as “mensa” (stupid), “tonto” (fools) or “donkeys.”
That’s the basis for a second complaint on discrimination based on gender and race that has been been filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
And the lawsuit may be just the beginning of troubles for those building SkyHouse Denver. City of Denver officials confirmed this week that three of the four drywall contractors working on the project do not have contractor licenses required for construction work in Denver.
The Circle Group hasn’t had a valid contractor’s license in Denver since 2011. Neither Gulf Coast Construction nor Javier Martinez Drywall have contractor licenses for drywall work, although Martinez Drywall has a business license in good standing with the Secretary of State.
LA Drywall does have a contractor license, one they obtained in December only after another reporter asked the Denver Community Planning and Development division if the company had a valid license.
The facility’s main contractor is Swinerton Builders, which has offices in several states.
According to Andrea Burns, who handles communications for Denver Community Planning, Swinerton and partner Batson-Cook obtained a general construction permit. The scope of that permit includes drywall work, Burns told The Colorado Independent.
However, the department’s policy states that subcontractors, such as the drywall companies, must be also licensed to do construction work in the city of Denver.
When the city of Denver found out that LA Drywall did not have a license, they contacted Swinerton to remind them that their drywallers also had to be licensed by the city of Denver. That was six months ago. According to the city, the drywall companies have yet to seek those licenses.
When asked about why the contractors didn’t have licenses, Swinerton’s Julie Witecki replied, “no comment.”
So how did contractors manage to build a 26-story building without proper licenses?
Burns said the city plans to investigate the matter.
Photo credit: Simpson Property Group
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