LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) --  More than a year before about 100 immigrant drywall workers walked off the Omni Hotel job Wednesday, the Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission sided with general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie in a dispute over the wages those workers are paid.

The February 2016 decision by the commission, a unit of Louisville Metro government that deals with employment discrimination, was then affirmed by Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman in October, according to records obtained by WDRB News.

The Human Relations Commission basically affirmed Brasfield & Gorrie’s plan to set minimum wages for lesser-skilled carpenters on the project at $19.26 per hour in cash and $4.83 in “fringes,” or benefits. The commission actually raised the cash wage minimum to $20.47.

The rates were derived from the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of wages that should be paid on federally funded projects, though the $289 million Omni project has no federal funding.

Jim Smith, an attorney for Brasfield & Gorrie, said Thursday the Kentucky Labor Cabinet in early 2015 instructed the contractor to pay according to federal benchmark because the state's schedule of prevailing wages did not apply to the Omni project -- a contention that is backed up by the Human Relations Commission decision.   

But the local carpenters union, which does not represent the workers, argued before the commission that all carpenters on the Omni project should have wages of at least $23.55 in cash and $16.46 in benefits.

David Suetholz, a Louisville labor attorney who has acted as a spokesman for the striking workers this week, also helped to represent the carpenters union in the wage challenge, which began in 2015.

In an interview Thursday, Suetholz said the carpenters union -- the Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters Local 175 -- was concerned that contractors who had collective bargaining agreements with their members to pay the higher set of wages would be undercut on Omni work by contractors offering the lower wages to nonunion workers.

"They were trying at the outset to get the parties to agree and do it properly, and apply one commercial wage rate… They were at a complete disadvantage because their contracts were requiring them to pay $17 an hour more for this type of work," Suetholz said.

Suetholz didn’t dispute that the drywall workers are paid federal prevailing rates for the work, but he called that argument “a subterfuge.”

Suetholz said Brasfield & Gorrie was wrong to apply what he called “residential” rates for the drywall workers and “commercial” rates for other carpenters on the project. Suetholz said the Human Relations Commission erred in its decision.

But Smith said that’s “completely wrong” and that the workers are paid the appropriate rate for a commercial project.

After workers walked off the job Wednesday, the dispute escalated Thursday with several union members and advocacy groups like Kentucky Jobs with Justice joining the picketing workers in solidarity.

"Even if they're non-union, it's the right thing to do to help them and stand up for them,"  said Tim Morris of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, a umbrella group representing about 50 local unions. 

The workers agreed Thursday to return to the job at the same wages, but a majority of them have expressed a desire to join the carpenter's union, Suetholz said. 

The workers will attempt to establish a bargaining unit so that they can negotiate wages as a group, Suetholz said. 

Dispute over correct set of 'prevailing' wages

The Human Relations Commission decision is signed by the commission's late executive director Carolyn Miller-Cooper, whom Mayor Greg Fischer called "one of our great civil rights leaders" upon her death in December.

Mayor Greg Fischer has said the Omni project -- about half of which will be paid for by city and state tax dollars -- would pay "prevailing wages" to workers on the project.

But according to the Human Relations Commission decision, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet told an attorney for Brasfield & Gorrie in April 2015 that prevailing wages set by the state were not applicable to the Omni project.

The state Labor Cabinet suggested that Brasfield & Gorrie instead use federally published rates, which led the contractor to bid work at the "drywall hanging and metal stud installation" carpenter rate of $19.26 an hour, plus $4.83 in benefits, according to the Human Relations Commission.

A spokeswoman for the mayor was not immediately able to comment on what sort of prevailing wages are expected for the project.

Suetholz said the drywall workers would be paid at much higher rates if the state schedule were used instead of the federal.

"Why does the federal law apply to the Omni in Louisville, Kentucky?" he said.

But Smith said the Human Relations Commission decision shows how Brasfield & Gorrie and Omni took deliberate steps to make sure they were meeting state and local government officials' expectations for wages on the project.

"This was not some whimsical move that was made or any kind of devious move," he said. "We checked all of this out with the agencies that have dominion on this project."

McDonald-Burkman's ruling affirming the Human Relations Commission's decision was made on technical grounds.

This story will be updated.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved.