Opinion: This is no way to treat construction workers

New research reveals that 1 out of 6 construction workers in the state of California are either working off the books or are misreported as independent contractors rather than employees.

“Some 39,800 workers were misclassified.... An additional 104,100 workers weren’t recorded at all,” Tiffany Hsu reports in The Times.

There are a lot of downsides to a workforce laboring in the legal shadows. They get paid between 38% and 48% less than those who work on the books. The state loses hundreds of millions of dollars in workers’ compensation payments, disability dues and unemployment insurance, not to mention other kinds of social benefits paid to impoverished workers that effectively subsidize cheapskate employers. And construction companies that classify and therefore pay their workers (and state coffers) by the book suffer as they get outbid by the cheaters.

“We come across these types of unlawful business practices at schools, colleges, universities, libraries, airports and other government facilities; at multi-unit housing projects and high-rise buildings,” David Kersh, executive director of the nonprofit Carpenters/Contractors Cooperation Committee, told Hsu. “They involve regional and international contractors and developers, and companies employing from dozens up to 200 workers on a single project.”


It isn’t hard to guess where this trend goes if it continues. Off-the-books workers are disposable, easily replaced and less accountable. Construction workers face hazards on the job, but even more worrisome is the shoddy workmanship that frequently results from deprofessionalization. Bad electrical wiring installed in 2014 can burn down a building in 2044.

Today’s cartoon was inspired by personal experience.

A close friend who worked construction watched an undocumented coworker fall off a ladder — nothing extraordinary, just a seven-footer — hit his head and expire before emergency responders arrived. When I read Hsu’s piece, I did what I often do as a cartoonist — what if this situation were pushed to its logical, dystopian, nth degree?

Disposable workers can be disposed of. Perhaps into a foundation on the job that killed him.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall