COMPTON — About 100 placard-toting construction workers marched on City Hall this week demanding payment of back wages and overtime for their labor on the Compton Lazben Hotel redevelopment project.
The workers complained that while building the nearly finished hotel, they received wages that were from half to a third below the prevailing rate set by state law. Several also said they were required to work 60 to 80 hours a week without being paid the required time-and-a-half for overtime.
Officials with Tucon Development Co., contractor on the 300-room hotel and convention center, say they have not violated any wage laws.
Nevertheless, company officials recently informed the City Council that Compton's Redevelopment Agency--not Tucon--will be responsible for paying any back wages ordered by state labor officials.
Work has remained at a virtual standstill on the hotel, which rises along the Artesia Freeway as the crown jewel of the city's redevelopment effort, since last month, when labor officials ordered that payments to Tucon be stopped because prevailing wages had allegedly not been paid.
Besides forcing the layoff of about 200 construction workers before Thanksgiving, the work stoppage forced the postponement of the city's long-anticipated Centennial Ball.
Jammed Into Council Chambers
After rallying outside City Hall on Tuesday, construction workers jammed into City Council chambers. Council members listened intently as several workers spoke, but avoided any comment on the advice of City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. Fenderson warned council members that any statements they make could hurt the city's position if the hotel controversy at some point lands in court.
In their order to the city, state labor officials say Tucon owes $3.3 million in back wages to workers and penalties. The state Department of Industrial Relations decided that the Compton Lazben, being built with city redevelopment funds and city-backed loans, is a public works project. As such, its contractor must pay state-set prevailing wages.
Carpenters, for instance, would be owed back wages equal to $15 an hour, more than double what they received.
Without city payments to continue work, a Tucon spokesman has said, the contractor was forced to lay off its work force with the job about 90% complete.
In an interview after the council session, Chester Randolph said he worked 80 hours a week pouring cement and performing other tasks on the hotel construction site.
Worker Saw No Choice
He said workers had no choice but to accept the long work weeks. "They said if I didn't stay (to work overtime), I would get laid off," the 34-year-old Compton resident said.
The pay was about $7 an hour, whether he was working his normal hours or overtime, Randolph said, adding that he would receive a regular paycheck for his "straight" time, but would be paid by personal check or cash for the overtime.
Maxwealth Ra, who said he worked as a laborer on the Lazben project, told the council that the Internal Revenue Service is questioning him because deductions were not taken out of the pay he received for working overtime.
"I've worked all my life," the 50-year-old Compton man told the council, "but when I was hired I was told we were working 60-hour weeks--10-hours a day, six days a week.
"What happened to me happened to all the workers on the site."
Floyd Clay, business representative for the Los Angeles County District Council of Carpenters, told the council that workers were "grossly underpaid" and forced to work "60, 70 or 80 hours a week with no overtime (pay)." Although the state is assessing Tucon for the back wages, he said the city could partly settle the debt by turning over the funds it is withholding to the workers rather than the contractor.
Benjamin Deutsch, president of Tucon, said Wednesday that the worker protest was simply a "public relations show." Workers were adequately paid and Tucon scrupulously followed the law, he said.
"I think these things are being orchestrated by the Carpenters Union and there's no truth to it," Deutsch said. "We haven't employed people in an illegal manner. Everything has been above board. . . . This is just another maneuver by the Carpenter's Union to torpedo the hotel."
Tucon contends that the city is responsible for back wages. A letter sent from Tucon chief Naftali Deutsch--Benjamin Deutsch's father--to council members Nov. 20 states that "these expenses will ultimately be borne by the city" and the city's redevelopment agency.
The letter, a copy of which was released by Carpenters Union officials, also suggests that city officials "examine other methods to provide new or additional sources of funds to replace the funds you are withholding" under the state order.