Workers Building Luxury Student Housing Owed Thousands in Back Wages
Jim Hellen and Nell Neal were among dozens who marched to the office of the Cottages of Durham, chanting "Pay Your Workers Now."Photo: AFSC / arnie alpert
DURHAM, NH--Seventy members of local religious and student groups, labor unions, and social justice organizations marched to the office of The Cottages of Durham on February 1 to call for the company to pay wages owed to construction workers on the luxury student housing project.
Quoting the Biblical injunction that “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers,” the Rev. Dr. Mary Westfall of the Community Church of Durham said, “We are here today to name a grave injustice in our community and to call upon all people of faith and conscience to become aware of this situation and demand change.”
Eight workers, whose request for full payment of wages led to their termination and eviction from their housing, turned to the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees and to the AFSC for assistance two weeks ago.
The workers, immigrants who claim that they are owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for their labor over the past several months, are now being represented by Lawrence Vogelman, an attorney who lives in Durham. Vogelman is exploring “all legal and administrative avenues open to us, both state and federal,” and has been in communication with lawyers representing Capstone Development, the Alabama company behind the Cottages.
Local pastors, community, labor, and student activists outlined the problem and their response at a news conference at the Community Church of Durham. “We are here today to express our outrage at the treatment of these fellow workers, human beings with a right to be paid for their labor, and to express our dismay at the reality of wage theft that is disturbingly common across the state of New Hampshire,” said the AFSC’s Maggie Fogarty, who led the press conference. “We believe that if we as community members can grow in our awareness and understanding of these terrible practices, we will demand with greater power that all workers be treated fairly and according to the law.”
Eva Castillo of the Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees said the practice of wage theft is not limited to construction, but goes on in other types of workplaces.
After singing an adaptation of the spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” with Capstone in the place of Pharaoh and the words “pay your workers now” substituted for “let my people go,” they marched a few blocks to the Cottages of Durham office in the center of town.
Click here to see a video of the march.
At the office, Arnie Alpert of the AFSC delivered letters to the company’s Senior VP, John Acken, who had flown to New Hampshire earlier in the day.
The letters, signed by members of the protest group, outlined the grievance and explained that in addition to the unpaid workers, others who were harmed by the company’s irresponsible behavior included local carpenters who did not get hired, a community which had expected the project to be built with integrity, and students who would not want to live in housing built by people who had not been paid for their labor.
Violations of state and federal labor law can result in serious consequences for Capstone Development Corporation, Cottage Builders and Cottages of Durham.
Participants in the press conference and march also included Mark MacKenzie of the NH AFL-CIO, Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood of the United Campus Ministry/ The Waysmeet Center, representatives of the Carpenters Union, members of Dover Friends Meeting, and two student groups, CORAJ and the Peace and Justice League. Rev. Michael Bradley, Father Andrew Cryans of St. Thomas More, members of the Durham Town Council, and the Town Administrator were there as well.
Cottages of Durham is being billed as luxury single units providing “resort living” in Durham, home to the main campus of the University of New Hampshire. The development will be comprised of 141 units with 619 beds, a clubhouse and many specialty amenities such as a pool, tanning service and fitness center. The construction is expected to be completed in time for the 2012-2013 academic year. Energetic campaigns to promote interest in these units include Facebook raffles and a T-shirt design contest with a $250 gift card prize.
According to the Union Leader, John Vawter of Cottage Builders, said he hopes the issues to be resolved by Monday, February 6.
Contact Maggie Fogarty for additional information.