LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- About 100 construction workers helping to build the Omni Hotel downtown walked off the job early Wednesday.
The workers, almost all of whom are Latino immigrants, said they recently discovered they're being paid less than others on the project. They hang and finish drywall and install metal studs, they said.
"We are the only one underpaid on this job," said Marco Cruz, who described himself as a safety worker. "Everyone else is making like $40-$45 an hour and we're doing like $20 an hour. So we feel like we were discriminated by our gender, our race, and that's what we're demanding, just fair salaries."
David Suetholz, a labor attorney helping the workers, said it's their right under federal law to come together and demand a conversation with their employer about their wages.
"They are the only workers -- the only workers -- on this project that are being paid a residential rate," Suetholz said. "Every other classification of workers on this project are being paid commercial rates, and it's my sneaking suspicion it's because they're immigrants."
Jim Smith, a Louisville attorney representing Brasfield & Gorrie, the general contractor building the hotel, said the workers are being paid about $24 an hour according to a schedule of benchmark construction wages maintained by the federal government.
That rate hasn't changed since the project began, he said. The workers are employed by PCC, a drywall subcontractor to Brasfield & Gorrie, he said.
Brasfield & Gorrie released a statement Wednesday:
"At the outset of the Omni Louisville Hotel project, wage rates for the project were established. Those wage rates were subject to legal challenges and proceedings brought by the Carpenters Union. Those wage rates have remained intact and have been in place since that time. All employees on the project site are being paid appropriately based upon the wage requirements which are applicable to this project."
Kerri Richardson, Omni's Louisville-based representative, declined to comment.
The workers are not unionized, but they are supported by the Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters Local 175, said Antonio Ramos, a business representative with the union.
Suetholz said he assumes the workers have legal status in the United States because employers are required to verify that.
"As an advocate for working people, it’s none of my concern because I want these people to be treated the same way everyone else on this project should be treated," he said.
Suetholz said Brasfield & Gorrie called some of the workers into a meeting in the on-site construction trailer Wednesday and told them they'd be fired if they didn't return to work and asked them to sign a release saying they had no issue with their wages. None complied, Suetholz said.
But Smith disputed that assertion, saying he personally told the workers -- using a Spanish interpreter -- that they could come back to the job at the same rate they had agreed, but that, if they did not, PCC is free to find other workers.
Smith said there was no threat to fire or permanently discharge the workers, and he conceded that they were engaging in "protected, concerted activity" Wednesday under federal labor law.
Smith also said there was no effort to get workers to sign anything.
About half the cost of the $289 million hotel and apartment building is being picked up by city and state taxpayers through a special taxing district.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has said the construction workers on the project would be paid the same "prevailing wages" the state has set for publicly funded construction projects.
The Republican-led state legislature repealed the prevailing wage requirements in January, but the new law applies only to projects that were not already in the works.
Smith the rates on the Omni project are the same rates used in federally funded construction projects even though no portion of the project is federally funded.
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