January 5, 2009 | last updated March 28, 2012 2:07 pm
LABOR POOL

The Dirty Job Of Drywall | Why one piece of the construction industry is rife with illegality

If you talk to people in the construction industry about illegal subcontracting, it doesn't take long for someone to mention drywall. Any kind of worker can be paid under the table or illegitimately labeled as a subcontractor, but somehow the drywall industry seems to be particularly vulnerable.

Why? For one thing, drywalling is a big job, and a tough one. That can make legitimate hiring, with costs for health insurance, workers comp and taxes, expensive.

"It's hard work. It's just dirty, hard," said Brian Cote, of Red Line Wall Systems in Leominster. "They're always pushing us to meet schedules and deadlines."

Cote said his company uses only in-house workers, but he said many of his competitors illegally hire "independent contractors" who function like employees but don't get things like time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance or social security payments.

"My gut feeling is 50, 60 percent, a lot of guys do it," he said.

From The North And From The South

Illegal hiring is nothing new in the drywall business. In the 1980s, construction insiders say, Canadians often came to Massachusetts, hung drywall for six months, and then went back over the border. But Cote said that supply of labor dried up about 15 years ago, when the Canadian economy hit an upsurge. At that point, he said, contractors who wanted to avoid legitimate hiring turned to Latinos, many of them undocumented.

Jack Donahue, business representative of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters Local 107, said there's a big difference between the two groups. The Canadians had their own government-sponsored health care and pensions, and if they decided to pack up and go home it was a fairly easy trip. While they represented unfair competition for local workers who needed benefits for their families, Donahue said, they typically weren't getting a terrible deal themselves.

With people from Latin America, he said, things are different. Many Latinos can't speak much English, and if they arrive from a different state and find hourly rates are less than they were promised they have little choice but to settle for what they can get.

For Cote, the situation makes it difficult to win many of the projects he bids on. Having skilled employees helps, he said, but drywalling is not a licensed trade like plumbing or electrical work, and unethical competitors can make up for a lack of expertise with extra manpower.

"They can beat you by 15 percent, no problem," he said.

Cote said he competes with hard work, a willingness to travel all around New England and support from certain general contractors and project managers. He said some of his clients want to avoid hiring a company that doesn't have insurance for every worker on the job. But he said there's no clear pattern in who cares about the issue and who doesn't: both big and small companies fall into both categories.

"It all depends," Cote said. "I think a lot of time it's up to the individual compa-ny, it's what their moral system is based upon, because every company is run by people."

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