Workers continue to battle University of Houston over wage theft claims

by | Apr 21, 2021 | Houston, Protests, Unions

Construction workers Omar Zuniga and Bolivar Pineda Ortiz (right) protest wage theft at the University of Houston, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Workers Defense Project.

A year after more than a dozen construction workers accused a contractor employed by the University of Houston of wage theft, more workers continue to come forward seeking compensation for lost wages.

Omar Zuniga, a construction worker who helped build “The Quad,” the university’s new $124 million dormitory project, spoke out about his experience during a Tuesday protest.

Zuniga said he filed a wage theft complaint with the university in the summer of 2020. His complaint focused on not being paid prevailing wage rates, or wage rates that are required by law when working on federal, state, or public projects.

Months later, he said the university got back to him and told him his case had been investigated and resolved. Zuniga said no one ever spoke to him about his complaint or the investigation.

“What we’re demanding is justice, that the economic damage done to us is repaired,” Zuniga said at the protest. “We don’t want this to happen again in the future.”

“There is a lot of construction work going on,” Zuniga said while gesturing at the surrounding campus. “How do we know they’re getting their fair pay too?” 

Bolivar Pineda Ortiz, another construction worker who spoke at the protest, said his claim was also denied by the university without being interviewed. Both workers are now being represented by the non-profit law firm Equal Justice Center and are appealing the university’s decision. 

They are the third group of workers to come forward with wage theft claims, according to the Workers Defense Project, the labor advocacy group that hosted Tuesday’s protest and which also legally represented 14 construction workers that successfully settled their wage claims last year.

“At first it was just a couple of workers, then more workers came forward,” Houston Staff Attorney for Workers Defense Nick Wertsch told the Signal. “Eventually, we had meetings with upwards of 20 workers.”

Wertsch said the more workers they spoke to, the more clear it became they weren’t getting paid their full wages. 

Ultimately, Workers Defense had the capacity to represent only 14 of the builders they spoke to, settling nearly $100,000 worth of claims. 

But Wertsch said there are many more disaffected workers among the hundreds of construction workers that were needed to build the dormitory. 

In a statement from the University of Houston, director of media relations Chris Stipes said the issue was not about prevailing wages, but worker job classification — something that is the responsibility of the contractor and subcontractors on the project. 

“After a review of the allegations, the University has determined that good cause does not exist to believe a prevailing wage rate violation occurred,” Stipes said. “The University of Houston believes in fair pay for all employees and expects employees of contractors and subcontractors who are performing work on campus to be treated fairly and in accordance with the protections afforded to them under the law.”

Last year, the University of Houston paid an independent CPA firm to audit the Quadrangle project and the contractor overseeing the project, Austin Commercial. The university said the external audit of the contractor’s payroll found no violations of prevailing wage rates. 

“They never gave any real details about how they investigated those claims,” Wertsch said of the audit. “I don’t know exactly what they did, but I can tell you this: they never spoke to a single worker as part of their investigation — and we know because we were legally representing those workers.”

Omar Zuniga told the Signal he’s still waiting for a response from the university in regards to his appeal. 

During the pandemic, he said workers that spoke out were especially worried about being fired. 

“We were scared as workers that we would be fired from the company when there was starting to be little work,” Zuniga said. “Those of us who had united to [fight for] the claim, we kept thinking, ‘we’re going to be the first ones to get fired.’” 

The University of Houston has repeatedly argued that since the construction workers are not employees of the school, the university has no legal basis to pay them. Construction of the “The Quad” wrapped up in late 2020. 

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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