Denver painters fight toxic labor practices

In February, commercial painter Juan Deras asked his boss Betty Henry at Craftsman Painting and Decorators Inc. for a respirator mask to protect him from the toxic chemicals he worked with daily. She refused. He complained about the company’s health and safety standards, and she fired him.

Henry told him that it is not her company’s responsibility to provide safety equipment to workers, he told The Colorado Independent.

Deras, who is now preparing for his medical school exams, explained that after a few weeks of working at Craftsman, he began to suffer from shortness of breath, a sore throat and dizziness.

In addition to working with chemicals that made him sick, he rarely received paychecks on time and was forced to use ladders that were dangerously old, broken and too short.

When he complained, Henry did not allow him to enter her office and spoke to him through a cracked door. He said she initially belittled his concerns, saying, “So I’m to give you an armor suit? That’s safety. So I have to tie you to the ladder and tie the ladder to the building? That’s safety.”

After several minutes of calm conversation, Henry said, “If you’re here to cause trouble, we don’t need you.” She fired Deras at the Aurora Craftsman office and slammed the door in his face, he said.

Henry did not return requests for comment on this story.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules require employers to provide safety equipment to employees at no cost. Painters are prone to an array of safety and health risks, ranging from chemical exposure to unsafe equipment and improper training.  These health burdens are aggravated by the fact that many painting companies do not provide health benefits to employees.

In 2013, 294 construction workers fell to their deaths, according to OSHA

The Denver chapter of the International Painters Union and Allied Trades aims to improve working conditions through the Constructing Justice campaign. The campaign works with developers to ensure they don’t contract with companies known to violate workers’ rights.

Over the last year, the Denver painter’s union collected information on wages and workplace security measures.  Conversations with over 600 unionized and non-unionized painters throughout Colorado revealed that workers experience wage theft, poor working conditions and safety hazards.

Leilani Clark, a researcher with the IUPAT District Council 15, explained to The Colorado Independent that the negligence and mistreatment Deras experienced is not an incident isolated to Craftsman. It is an industry-wide problem. 

Many construction companies misclassify workers as independent contractors instead of employees.  This enables subcontractors to evade industry regulations and labor laws and avoid paying federal and state taxes including Medicare, Social Security, workers compensation and unemployment taxes.

For these employers, the financial incentive to misclassify workers is high. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that a business can save 30 percent on labor costs by classifying employees as independent contractors.  Employers playing by the rules end up at a competitive disadvantage and misclassified employees are denied basic protections including medical leave, overtime, minimum wage and unemployment insurance.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service partnered to counteract the trend through the Misclassification Initiative, which aims to detect and reprimand employers who wrongfully classify workers. In 2011 Colorado became the 11th state to sign the initiative with the hopes of counteracting lost tax revenues.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment found that 14.2 percent of the state’s workforce was misclassified in 2010, resulting in $26 million in under-reported chargeable wages. The state’s construction industry is particularly notorious, with over 20.1 percent of workers misclassified as independent contractors. The same report estimates an annual $167 million loss in Colorado Income Tax revenue due to misclassification. 

Florencio Games, a recent immigrant from Honduras, is a prime example of a misclassified worker.  Sitting at the kitchen table of his fluorescent-lit Aurora apartment, Games recounted that he worked 75-hour weeks painting the 360 Degrees apartment complex in Centennial last fall.  During these four months, he worked for Jose Arias, an employee of BTS Painting & Services Inc., but was not classified as an employee.

Florencio Games outside the 360 Denver building where he worked as a painter.
Florencio Games outside the 360 Denver building where he worked as a painter.

In October, Arias suddenly stopped paying him, and Games was forced to borrow money to keep providing for his sister, wife, two children and sick mother.  After weeks of no pay and financial hardship, he left the job.  To this day, Games says he is owed wages for 22 days of unpaid labor, amounting to $2,400.  He is working with lawyers who specialize in wage-theft cases to sue for back pay.

Games added that the men he worked with are also still owed back wages.  Frequently victims of wage theft are immigrants and workers employed in low-wage industries where they are easily replaced.

The Denver painter’s union regularly files complaints regarding worker misclassification and wage theft.

The union’s Constructing Justice campaign takes the new approach of working directly with developers to raise awareness about the workers’ rights violations in the painting industry. The idea is if big-name developers refuse to contract with companies that violate safety regulations, provide no benefits and steal wages, then painting companies will have a financial incentive to change their practices. 

Two weeks ago, campaign representatives and students met with Michael Barden, the director of facilities projects at the Colorado University of Denver and Anshutz campuses to present a 26 page report that chronicles violations in the painting industry.

CU Denver recently finished construction on a $60.5 million student-commons building. Shamrock Painting was sub-contracted for the project. In 2014 the company received an OSHA violation and was fined for improper safety equipment that exposed an employee to a 40 foot fall on a Denver area construction project. 

Alejandra Colmenero, who graduated from CU Denver this May, was also present at the meeting. She told Barden that her family friend who worked as a painter fell from a ladder and lost his life on the job. She added, “Something like that happening on campus would be incredibly devastating because it’s possible to prevent that situation.”

The group requested that as CU Denver builds its new student wellness center, Barden should ensure the university will hire subcontractors that provide employees with living wages, benefits including sick leave and health insurance and proper safety equipment and training.

They also asked that the university avoid Shamrock Painting Inc. due to its recorded OSHA violation and abstain from hiring companies whose workers have testified to the Denver painter’s union about wage and hour violations, unsafe working conditions and misclassification, including Cornerstone Painting and Coating, Craftsman Painters and Decorators Inc, and Drywall Services Inc.

Barden explained that CU Denver’s developments are regulated by the Colorado State Architect’s contracts. The contracts, he said, are intended to address workers’ rights by requiring contractors to carry insurance liability,  assure workers’ compensation, settle claims for unpaid equipment, and hire a superintendent to oversee construction.

CU Denver goes above and beyond, Barden said, pointing out that the building where the meeting took place is a LEED certified U.S. Green Building. He added that worker safety is a priority, but did not agree to Constructing Justice’s campaign requests, stating that it is a state process and that the university needs to get competitive bids.

Barden did agree to pass the workers’ rights violations information on to his team and to continue the conversation with campaign organizers and the Denver painter’s union. 

Clark, the IUPAT researcher said, “if you ensure that the construction workers on your job sites are getting proficient benefits, pension plans and livable wages, that will ensure that later on their kids have the opportunity to enroll at the University of Colorado.”

According to the Denver painter’s union, UCD has a track record of using irresponsible contractors like Shamrock. Yet campaign organizers see the university’s potential to be a leader pushing the industry toward better labor practices.

 The Denver painter’s union is starting conversations with Corporex and United Properties, too.

Deras, the non-unionized painter fired by Craftsman, said that developers have the responsibility to investigate how companies treat their workers.

The young medical student offers these words of advice to his fellow painters: “Our health is the number one thing to take care of. We need to have good health to keep working and provide for our families. If we don’t take care of ourselves, these companies won’t.”


Photo credit: Karp, Creative Commons, Flickr