Wilfs’ company turned deaf ear to warnings of wage theft at Viking Lakes development

Abel Susteito speaks at a Capitol press conference about his experience with wage theft on the Viking Lakes apartment project in Eagan.

Tradespeople who worked on the Viking Lakes luxury apartments in Eagan went public last week with accusations of wage theft on the project, owned and developed by the same family that owns the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

Worker advocacy groups, including the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters (NCSRCC), pinned responsibility for the alleged labor abuses on the Wilfs, whose company, MV Ventures, ignored the groups’ repeated warnings that subcontractors awarded work on the project had a track record of labor violations and dishonesty.

“MV Ventures is a Wilf-family company. MV Ventures develops the project, hires the subcontractors and has control of the project from start to finish,” Carpenters General Council Burt Johnson said. “They are responsible.”

The union said it has heard from more than 40 workers on the Viking Lakes project who said they were not paid what they were owed, and two workers at a Capitol press conference May 5 confirmed reporting the wage theft to Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry.

But any civil or criminal penalties resulting from an investigation are likely to fall on the subcontractors, prompting calls from community leaders for the Wilfs and MV Ventures to do the right thing now.

Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of the Twin Cities-based worker center CTUL, said MV Ventures should meet with unions to resolve the allegations stemming from Viking Lakes, and sign a pledge with the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council requiring all contractors on its developments to uphold basic labor standards.

Javier Mendez Velasco speaks to reporters about his experience installing siding at the Viking Lakes apartments.

Mendez Moore also noted the Wilfs benefited from nearly half a billion dollars in public subsidies to build the Vikings’ new stadium in Minneapolis.

“This is a family that needs to be held to a higher standard,” she said. “They need to partner with the community to better ensure standards for all of the people in our city.”

‘Constantly tired’

Despite working for different subcontractors, Javier Mendez Velasco and Abel Susteito described similar labor standards on the 261-unit, luxury apartment project at Viking Lakes. Both said they were paid wages lower than what they were initially promised, with no overtime or holiday pay and no vacation or health insurance benefits.

That was a standard arrangement, Mendez Velasco said, at subcontractors like Advantage Construction and Property Maintenance and Construction (PMC), which employed him to do siding work on the Wilf family’s Eagan development site. In over three years with Advantage and PMC, Mendez Velasco said he never received overtime pay, despite working six or seven days per week, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“We were constantly tired, but our boss wasn’t understanding,” Mendez Velasco said through a Spanish-language interpreter. “He would never help us out.”

Susteito hung drywall at Viking Lakes from November 2020 to August 2021 as an employee of Absolute Drywall, a company local unions have been calling out for several years, pointing to past citations for child labor, misclassification of workers and failure to pay overtime. The state Labor Department also found that Absolute Drywall submitted false and misleading claims in response to an investigation.

“I want to ask the Department of Labor to keep fighting for our rights, and for better pay for us,” Susteito said at the press conference.

Carpenters union official Adam Duininck says he and others suggested ways the Wilfs’ company could prevent wage theft on the Viking Lakes project. “Our suggestions just were not taken seriously,” he said.

Profit before public interest

Advocates for construction workers say exploitation is baked into the industry’s business model, with layers of contractors, subcontractors and labor brokers that insulate developers like the Wilfs from responsibility for working conditions and standards on their projects.

Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable.

“We came here to work, and we have our own dreams. But we were taken advantage of,” Mendez Velasco said. “As immigrant workers we are taken advantage of for our hard work, for our dedication, but also because we don’t have the knowledge and the available resources.”

Union representatives warned the Wilfs’ development company, MV Ventures, about their subcontractors’ checkered background “ad nauseam,” according to Adam Duininck, NCSRCC’s director of government affairs. He said the union also urged the developer to be proactive in preventing wage theft.

“We suggested a number of ways to get ahead of wage theft, including jobsite monitoring and working with outside groups to monitor payroll,” Duininck said. “Our suggestions just were not taken seriously.”

As a result, workers like Susteito, Mendez Velasco and dozens of others are still waiting to be made whole for their work building luxury apartments that are now renting at prices between $1,600 and $2,245 per month.

“These workers take great risk when they come forward and talk to the public about what’s going on,” Johnson said. “We need to believe them.”

Comments

  1. betazeded says:

    Sounds like they need “Project Labor Agreements” with Union Contractors for large public projects with private capital.

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  1. […] allegations of wage theft continue to bubble up from the Twin Cities’ nonunion construction industry, a worker-led initiative aims to partner […]

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