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14 construction workers sue home-building firm

They say they weren't paid for overtime work. The company, BMHC, denies that and other allegations.

September 24, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

A group of construction workers has filed suit against a San Francisco-based home-building company, claiming that they were coerced for years into working unpaid overtime.

In a federal court lawsuit, the 14 plaintiffs also allege a variety of other violations, including being asked to sign blank time sheets, skip breaks and travel without compensation, attorneys said. They are seeking payment of the wages they claim to be owed, but they did not specify an amount.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against Building Materials Holding Corp., which provides residential construction services through a subsidiary, SelectBuild Construction Inc.

The company refused to comment. In a statement, it denied the allegations and said the suit was part of an effort to unionize its workers.

"BMHC and SelectBuild fully comply with federal and state wage practices and believe this suit is without merit," the statement said. "We intend to defend against it vigorously."

Leaders of the Laborers' International Union of North America joined plaintiffs at a news conference Tuesday, although they said they were not a party to the suit. Both the union and the plaintiffs contended that the construction industry was rife with labor law violations.

"We hear every day about bailouts for the mortgage industry and we know that homeowners are suffering," said Glenn Rothner, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. "But there's another dimension to this. The pressures in the industry are also being felt by these workers, who are not being paid."

The suit seeks class-action status. If it is granted, Rothner said, thousands of workers would be affected and the wages sought could reach into the millions of dollars.

Outside the federal courthouse Tuesday, plaintiff Pablo Nunez Castillo, 37, said he earned $17 an hour doing a variety of construction work. When he complained to a supervisor about not being paid for overtime work, he was told that "if I didn't like it, I could leave or be quiet."

Nunez said he was laid off by BHMC last year and was now doing construction work for another company.

In the union's report, Eduardo Acevedo Nava, 35, said he sometimes worked 20 hours of overtime a week but was never paid for it.

"We don't exist for this company," he said. "We are the ghosts that build the homes."

BMHC is among many companies that have been hit hard by the downturn in the housing market.

For the quarter that ended June 30, the company reported a loss of $32 million on sales of $385 million. Its shares slipped 11 cents Tuesday to 90 cents.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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