Wage theft lawsuit muddies the water for potential Amazon headquarters in D.C.

Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler Writer, In the Public Interest

Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. From President Donald Trump tweeting, incorrectly, that unemployment is at its “best point in history,” to Amazon trading new jobs for tax breaks on its next headquarters, employment seems to be today’s most valuable political currency.

Yes, jobs are valuable. They pay the bills and put food on the table. But what we rarely question is their quality: how much they pay, whether they come with good benefits, and who has access to them.

That’s why a lawsuit filed this week by Washington, D.C.’s Attorney General is so significant. It calls into question the common-sense strategy used by most if not all U.S. cities and states of handing out tax breaks to corporations and real estate developers in exchange for job creation.

In the grand scheme of things, the lawsuit is a slap on the wrist in what is really a heavyweight bout. Power Design, a Florida-based electrical contractor, allegedly schemed to avoid paying 535 D.C. workers sick leave, overtime pay, or the minimum wage. It’s already been sued at least five times for wage theft in D.C. and Maryland alone. And it’s just one contractor — employers in the ten most populous states steal an estimated $8 billion annually from workers by not paying the minimum wage.

Wage theft has been around a long time. My father has told me stories from the early 1980s when he was paid low, non-union wages by a construction company that charged its clients higher union wages.

But this lawsuit is an opportunity to ask loud and clear: if the public can’t enforce the agreements we make, then why make agreements at all?

Power Design has worked on many high-profile D.C. development projects, including the newly opened LINE Hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, a few blocks from where I live. The luxury hotel’s developer received a $46 million tax break in exchange for hiring local residents for the majority of its construction and permanent jobs. The District is set to soon begin assessing whether the developer held up its end of the bargain. But what if Power Design and other contractors skirted labor laws in the process? Without full enforcement, how would we even know?

So, with Amazon potentially coming to town, D.C. residents must ask: are the new jobs worth the billions of public dollars and land we’re likely going to give away? Will they be good jobs? Or will the construction jobs be funneled through contractors like Power Design? Will the permanent jobs be too out-of-reach for existing D.C. residents?

At least this latest lawsuit hints that we might soon be able to enforce the answers to those questions.


Reposted from Medium