Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UM grad student prods Univ. to tweak employment policy on construction

By Brian Canova

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Brian Canova/Collegian

At a rally Friday widely attended by campus construction workers, students, and press, Keith Wrightson, a labor studies graduate student. called on the University of Massachusetts to adopt a Responsible Employer Policy, citing instances of fraud, worker abuse, non-payment of taxes, shoddy construction practices and violations of workers’ rights committed by contractors hired by the University for construction projects.

Wrightson detailed the instances in a 42-page report released at the rally, instances he said necessitate the need for the policy.

The policy and the report, products of Wrightson’s two-year graduate study informed by 15 years’ experience with the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, would encourage increased discretion from the University when contracting construction and maintenance projects to outside firms.

According to Wrightson, municipalities including Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Lowell have adopted Responsible Employment Ordinances (REOs).

UMass Director of News and Media Relations Edward Blaguszewski said that, as a state entity, the University cannot adopt such a policy.

“UMass is a state entity,” said Blaguszewski. “Unlike municipalities, where these type of arrangements have been signed by some cities and towns, we are governed by state bidding and contract rules,” Blaguszewski said.

Under current Massachusetts law, project specifications for public projects, once drafted, are opened to public bidding among subcontractors in the 17 different specialized trades involved in commercial building.

Subcontractors’ bids, cost estimates a firm proposes for a specified job, are compiled by the Department of Procurement within the University and a list of bids is made available to general contractors for a second round of bidding.

General contractors choose from bidding subcontractors and the general contractors submit bids of their own for the overall project.

Massachusetts law requires overall projects be contracted to the lowest “reasonable and responsible bidder,” though general contractors need not contract the lowest bidding subcontractors.

All contractors and subcontractors hired for public projects must be certified by the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), according to state law.

Wrightson argues DCAM lacks the resources to investigate firms for the aforementioned violations, and thus public projects continue to be awarded to firms committing malfeasances like worker fraud, worker safety violations, and other violations of the public trust.

Wrightson said the policy does not advantage unions.

This gives an advantage to workers in general. The policy does not say you must hire unions or you can only use a union workforce. The policy point blank asks the University to hire contractors that follow the law,” Wrightson said after the rally.

The report released Friday details instances where firms cited for fraudulence and regulatory violations were contracted by the University as the lowest reasonable and responsible bidders for additional projects soon after their transgressions or despite a history of committing them.

In January 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety issued a Stop Work Order on the George N. Parks Marching Band Building after it was discovered not a single member of a 12-worker crew with Easthampton-based Boulanger’s Plumbing and Heating  had a license to perform pipefitting work in Massachusetts, according to Wrightson’s report.

As of Jan. 25, Boulanger’s Plumbing and Heating posted the lowest bid for a maintenance project at Thatcher and Lewis residence halls in the Northeast Residence Area, according to the report, meaning, by state law, the firm will be awarded the project.

“I do not have information directly related to that contract at this time,” Blaguszewski said Sunday night of Wrightson’s report, released Friday afternoon.

Needham Heights-based Nauset Construction, the general contractor hired in 2010 for the Southwest Concourse improvement project, is also a focus of the report.

The report details a history of violations by the subcontractors Nauset Construction employed and lists 12 cases brought against the firm.

According to the report, “Only contractors that abide by state and federal law, pay prevailing wage rates, provide safe and healthy working environments, and properly train, license, and classify their employees would be eligible to bid on UMass Amherst construction projects.”

Blaguszewski said University employment practices meet these qualifications.

“The pool of people and companies we draw from meet standards for quality and eligibility based on how the state manages its program,” said Blaguszewski.

Wrightson said the policy’s implementation would engender no additional financial burden to the University. He explained a volunteer committee comprised of members of the Coalition for Responsible UMass Employment, a recently-formed umbrella group of student and University employee advocacy groups, as well as administrators, would work alongside the existing Procurement Department to eliminate firms that fail to meet the standards outlined in the policy from the bidding process, should the University administration adopt Wrightson’s proposed policy.

“I can tell you there have been conversations with the group, and we’ve made it clear that even though there may be companies they may not want to be operating here, [those firms] have been deemed quite appropriate by the state and it’s not really up to UMass to say that they’re not,” Blaguszewski said.

“We cannot independently determine who can bid or not bid on our projects. In other words, based on state law, we provide contracts to the lowest and most responsible bidder. The determination of who is eligible to be a responsible bidder is not up to us,” Blaguszewski said.

The cost of construction projects currently underway on campus, including the new Commonwealth Honors College complex, new laboratory science building and renovations slated for McGuirk Stadium total approximately $500 million.

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @BrianCanova.

Correction: Keith Wrightson’s name was incorrectly spelled in a previous version.

 

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