Labor activists, lawmakers call for greater accountability in construction following rape report

By: - October 11, 2022 1:29 pm

Barb Peck, business agent for the carpenters’ union, thanks Norma Izaguirre (left) for coming forward with her story of sexual assault, during a news conference in front of the Minnesota Capitol on Oct. 11, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Union leaders, labor activists and Democratic lawmakers joined Norma Izaguirre, a worker who says she was raped on a construction site, in front of the state Capitol on Tuesday to call for greater accountability for developers who exploit workers and allow abuse to go unchecked.

“The bravery of one survivor of sexual violence … has highlighted the need for change in the way women are treated on construction sites,” said Barb Pecks, a business representative with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We need accountability on the part of developers and contractors.“

The news conference follows Izaguirre coming forward with her story, first published in the Reformer, of being raped and sexually assaulted multiple times while working as a cleaner for a drywall subcontractor at the Viking Lakes development in Eagan in 2021.

The development is controlled by Leonard, Zygmunt and Mark Wilf, the billionaire owners of the Minnesota Vikings team, and is home to the team’s new training facility and headquarters as well as an orthopedic center and luxury apartments. MV Ventures, the Wilf family’s real estate company in Minnesota, is the general contractor for Viking Lakes and selects and oversees subcontractors on the development.

Izaguirre reported the abuse to her supervisor at Absolute Drywall and a witness corroborated her story, but the owner of the company, Daniel Ortega, told her the relationship was consensual and then fired her, according to a complaint she filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Izaguirre says the man, Diego Medina, also stalked her and threatened to hurt her and her family.

Medina has been charged with felony and gross misdemeanor sexual misconduct by the Dakota County attorney but has not been apprehended. He is believed to have returned to Mexico.

Flanked by men and women in hard hats in front of the Capitol, Izaguirre said she chose to speak out so that other women workers don’t go through what she did.

“My question for Minnesota developers and construction companies is this: What are you going to do to prevent this from happening to another woman?” Izaguirre said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Democratic state lawmakers and candidates for county attorney also joined Izaguirre, including Matt Little, who’s running to be Dakota County attorney, and Martha Holton Dimick, who’s running to be Hennepin County attorney. If elected, both would have the power to prosecute wage theft, sexual assault and other labor abuses in their districts. While state lawmakers made wage theft a crime in 2019, prosecutors have yet to enforce the law.

State regulators have received more than two dozen complaints of wage theft by workers on the Viking Lakes development, as the Reformer first reported in May. The state Department of Labor and Industry, which does civil investigations, does not confirm investigations. No one has been convicted criminally of wage theft.

“I’m angry because this was preventable. This did not have to happen,” said Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), which helps nonunion construction workers.

Leaders from the carpenters’ union and CTUL warned Vikings’ executives about Absolute Drywall’s checkered past. The company has been cited multiple times by federal and state labor regulators, including for illegally employing a minor.

When MV Ventures moved forward with Absolute Drywall, the carpenters’ union and CTUL asked that labor advocates be allowed on the site to watch for abuse and harassment. MV Ventures declined, according to the union.

Gary Gleason, vice president of construction for MV Ventures, said in a statement that the company was not aware of allegations of sexual assault. He said MV Ventures has not been contacted by law enforcement, but they are prepared to cooperate.

“We take any allegations of sexual assault extremely seriously and condemn the alleged conduct raised in the media today. The reporting also suggests that the subcontractor in question failed to adequately investigate these accusations and take appropriate action to protect its employees,” Gleason said.

Gleason said the company will “reemphasize to all individuals working on our projects that any workplace harassment or abuse will not be tolerated and should be directly reported to MV Ventures Construction along with the individual’s employer.”

In regards to allegations of wage theft, Gleason said MV Ventures has not been contacted by state investigators but if the claims are valid then “the subcontractors will have breached their contracts … and will be held accountable.”

A lawyer for Absolute Drywall did not return an email seeking comment.

Accurate data on sexual abuse at work is hard to come by, since it so often goes unreported. One frequently cited survey from 1992 found 57% of female construction workers had been touched or asked for sex on the job. Another survey from 2021 found 57% of female construction workers were either sometimes or frequently sexually harassed.

Although union workers aren’t immune from abuse, they do have a grievance process and are more likely to have advocates to bring their complaints to company owners and law enforcement. The building trades also have their own processes for handling abuse complaints, which, though imperfect, offer a clear avenue to seek redress.

Izaguirre filed complaints with law enforcement and state regulators with the assistance of the carpenters’ union, which began investigating work at Viking Lakes after union contractors were passed over for the work.

Izaguirre, who is a permanent resident of the United States, is in the process of joining the carpenters’ union’s apprenticeship program.

Peck, the carpenters’ union representative, said the union is taking steps to improve working conditions for women within its own ranks.

“We stand committed to ensuring all work sites are safe and workers are treated with dignity and respect. The carpenters are dedicated to training all staff and members to become advocates rather than bystanders” Peck said.

Sabrina McCray, a union carpenter, was at the news conference to support Izaguirre on Tuesday after hearing about her story. She said she thinks the industry can improve by training male supervisors on how to intervene in stopping harassment on the job.

She said her employer, Braxton, has swiftly responded to reports of sexual harassment and other contractors should be able to do the same.

“I had a sexual comment made towards me … I told my boss and that following day he was gone,” she said.

*This story has been updated with comment from MV Ventures.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.