Multiple lawsuits alleging wage theft and misclassification have been filed against construction companies working on projects for Prince George’s County Public Schools.

A September lawsuit filed against four contractors alleged that at least 10 workers working on plumbing services for the construction of William Wirt Middle School were misclassified or not paid their full wages. Another lawsuit filed by five workers in February accused several contractors working on the construction of Hyattsville Middle School of wage theft.

Some of the projects are part of PGCPS’ Capital Improvement Program. The program plans to construct or modernize multiple county schools by 2028, including William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale. The school has been under construction since summer 2021 and is scheduled to be completed in fall 2024.

In January 2022, Nelson Diaz started working as a plumber for the William Wirt Middle School construction project under contractor City Wide Mechanical LLC — a plumbing and mechanical services contractor serving the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., area.

Diaz, along with nine others, filed a lawsuit in September against four contractors, including City Wide. According to the lawsuit, Diaz claimed he should have legally been paid the prevailing wage — the hourly rate of wages and benefits based on location and trade issued by the Maryland Department of Labor— of $63.61 per hour.

But Diaz said that he was only receiving $30 an hour — less than half of what he was owed.

“It wasn’t fair that I was there working and doing my part, but they weren’t fulfilling theirs, which was paying me,” Diaz told The Diamondback via a translator.

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The lawsuit alleged that Diaz was supposed to be paid weekly through City Wide’s subcontractor — Leo & M Plumbing — but he was frequently not paid on time. Some weeks, Diaz, who lives in Beltsville, said he would have to drive to Frederick at 9 p.m. to pick up his paychecks. But some of them would bounce, he added.

“It was affecting my relationship with my wife because she would see that I would work and work and work, but I wasn’t bringing money home,” Diaz said via a translator.

Andrew Costa-Kelser, a lawyer for the Washington, D.C., based law firm O’Donoghue and O’Donoghue, filed the lawsuit for Diaz and the nine other workers alleging wage theft and worker misclassification.

According to the lawsuit, none of the workers were paid the prevailing wage rate for about 18 months, Costa-Kelser said.

Costa-Kelser added that these are common issues in the county due to the sheer amount of construction.

Leo & M Plumbing did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In addition to wage theft allegations, Diaz claimed City Wide was either excluding him from its certified payroll or misclassifying him.

An employee’s classification on their payroll determines their prevailing wage under the Maryland Prevailing Wage Law. The hourly rate for a worker depends on their trade and status as either an employee or an independent contractor, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But some contractors misclassify their workers to pay them less than their prevailing wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Misclassification led to City Wide not paying Diaz his full prevailing wage, he said.

City Wide did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for comment.

Yonis Bonilla, a plumber with the Mid Atlantic Pipe Trades Association — a collaboration of unions representing Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., workers in the construction industry — has been working closely with Diaz and other plumbers facing similar issues in PGCPS. He said situations like Diaz’s are fairly common in the county and the industry.

“It’s happening all over the place, and this is just one school,” Bonilla said. “But nobody comes forward because they’re scared and without a complaint, without a victim, we have nothing.”

Another lawsuit was filed in February against the Gilbane Building Company and its subcontractors. The lawsuit alleges that employers did not lawfully compensate employees for their work on Hyattsville Middle School. The school is being constructed under the Blueprint Schools Program — a public-private partnership announced in 2019 that will build six new schools in the county and enact other education initiatives around the state.

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The lawsuit alleges wage theft and worker misclassification are “rampant” in the greater Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas.

Gilbane Building Company “believes in a safe and equitable workplace for all workers on their projects,” a company representative told The Diamondback.

“Gilbane, as the construction manager for the Blueprint School Projects, expects and requires all subcontractors and vendors who employ workers on its jobsites to fully comply with applicable laws and wage regulations,” the representative said.

In a statement to The Diamondback, PGCPS said the school system takes claims of worker misclassification “seriously.”

“All of our contractors are required to ensure that all workers on our projects are paid their appropriate wages,” the statement read. “When claims are brought, PGCPS requires the contractors to vigorously investigate to ensure compliance with all regulations and requirements.”

To address these concerns, the PGCPS school board voted in September to include a Project Labor Agreement for the second phase of the Blueprint Schools Program to combat issues of wage theft and misclassification. Similarly, the Prince George’s County Council held a public hearing Tuesday regarding a similar bill that would require PLAs for county-funded projects valued more than $35 million.

District 8 council member Edward Burroughs, one of the bill’s nine sponsors, said he hoped the new bill would increase local hiring and ensure fair wages.

“It is absolutely imperative that we ensure that the money that we spend on these construction projects not only builds a project but we uplift our residents in the process as well,” Burroughs told The Diamondback last month.

Bonilla said many victims of wage theft and misclassification are undocumented. These victims often have limited job opportunities because many companies check an employee’s citizenship, he added.

“[These companies] take advantage of the fact that they have problems speaking English and that they’re afraid that they’re in this country undocumented,” Bonilla said. “They extort these guys by telling them ‘who else is going to give you work?’”