The Potluck

Labor leaders say Wilfs are ‘morally accountable’ for wage theft claims on Vikings development

By: - May 5, 2022 12:19 pm

Abel Sustaito says he’s still owed thousands of dollars for his work on the Viking Lakes project. During a news conference on May 5, 2022, he urged state regulators to crack down on wage theft. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Labor leaders are calling on the Vikings owners to correct the wage theft claimed by dozens of workers who helped build new apartments at the 200-acre Eagan mixed development built around the NFL team’s new training facility.

“As immigrant workers from Mexico, we came here to work and we have our own dreams, but we were taken advantage of,” said Javier Mendez Velasco in Spanish through an interpreter, during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.

The news conference follows a Reformer investigation detailing the workers’ claims and the prevalence of labor abuses in the non-unionized sector of the construction industry.

Velasco is one of more than 25 workers who say they’re owed more than $100,000 in wages for their work installing siding and hanging drywall on the Viking Lakes project and have filed complaints with the state Department of Labor and Industry. Union leaders say it’s likely one of the largest alleged wage theft cases in state history.

The workers were not employed by the Vikings or the owners’ development arm, MV Ventures, but rather two subcontractors: Absolute Drywall and Property Maintenance and Construction, which itself was a subcontractor for the company hired by the Vikings, Advantage Construction.

The Vikings said in a statement to the Reformer that they require subcontractors to abide by all labor laws and regulations, and that they are unaware of any violations on the project.

The owner of Advantage Construction, Chris Amiot, said he was aware of the inquiry by state regulators but did not know of any wrongdoing. He said his company subcontracted the work to Property Maintenance and Construction.  The owner of Property Maintenance and Construction, Leo Pimentel, denied any wrongdoing. The owner of Absolute Drywall, Daniel Ortega, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Labor leaders say the Vikings’ owners, Zygi and Mark Wilf, are ultimately “morally accountable” for any labor abuses that happen on their developments.

“(Developers) don’t have to wait for the taxpayers to fund an investigation. The people at the top have the ability to solve this problem,” said Burt Johnson, a lawyer for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.

Members of the carpenters union and the worker advocacy group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) say they warned Vikings executives that wage theft would likely occur on the job site.

One of the subcontractors, Absolute Drywall, has been cited multiple times by state and federal regulators for violating child labor laws, misclassifying workers as subcontractors, wage theft and providing false information to authorities.

Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the carpenters union, said the Vikings executives told them union bids weren’t accepted on the apartment project because they were uncompetitive.

“And we said back to them, ‘The reason that the price is so low is because of wage theft,’” Duininck said.

Wage theft costs the state upwards of $136 million a year in lost tax revenue, according to one estimate by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. It’s particularly prevalent in construction, with nearly a quarter of construction workers in Minnesota — about 30,000 people — estimated to be misclassified or paid off the books.

Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of CTUL, said the Wilf family needs to be held to a high standard given the level of public subsidy they’ve received. Minnesota taxpayers — mostly those who buy cigarettes and gambling pull tabs — covered $498 million of the cost of the Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The year after it was completed, the value of the Vikings franchise — and with it the Wilfs’ personal wealth — shot up 38%.

“This case involves one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the state. There is no excuse,” Mendez Moore said.

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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.