Subcontractors working on these student apartments at the University of Connecticut were discovered not to be paying the prevailing wage – and in some cases, not paying at all.

A recent legislative report has found the University of Connecticut’s UConn 2000 capital improvements program to be learning from the mistakes it’s made in the past.

UConn 2000 is exempt from the contract, construction and oversight processes of the state departments of public works and transportation. The university, however, must still comply with labor laws that incorporate public policy objectives such as fair labor practices, prevailing wage and hours, occupational safety and health and workers’ compensation.

Last year, subcontractors working on student apartments were discovered to not be paying the prevailing wage to workers and, in some instances, not paying at all. An investigation was called for by the Connecticut Department of Labor. Workers were paid and the subcontractors were fired.

The general contractor overseeing the $35 million project was Capstone Development, which is based in Homewood, Ala.

Sparked by the incident, a report was called for by the Department of Labor to look into the construction management process at the university. The report’s goal was to take an overall look at the project because of its unusual characteristics.

Jill Jensen, who helped compile the report, said the purpose of the study was to see how well the university was managing the construction project in terms of scheduling, budget and compliance with labor laws. The report was started in March 2002 and completed in December.

“Based on our research and observations, we thought they were doing a good job,” said Jensen. “This is the seventh year of the project so they’ve improved their management techniques over the years.”

“There had been other previous looks that said we were doing a fine job. This [report] substantiated that and also went a little more in depth, making sure that everything was working correctly,” said Richard Veilleux, UConn spokesman. “It also said that essentially that we were doing a good job.

“Everybody has a stake in it. We have a really tight time demands on these contractors. The buildings go up fast and have to be on budget and done well. There are a lot of jobs here, so if a company gets blackballed they take the chance of losing future work.”

The report looked at a number of labor complaints, finding most violations to be contractors not paying the prevailing wage.

“They found a number of violations and we were pretty quick to respond,” said Veilleux.

Built into the language that allows UConn to manage the projects is the stipulation that they must pre-qualify any contractor. One factor in that process is ensuring compliance with laws, specifically wage laws.

‘A Report Card’

While the report made a few minor recommendations to the university, none of them required legislative action. That is partly due to the fact that the university was granted an extension of the project last August called UConn 21st Century. That legislation included language that the university should pay closer attention to labor laws and the hiring of contractors.

UConn 21st Century, which grants the university another $1 billion over 10 years for capital improvements, will overlap with the current projects around the year 2005. Veilleux said that represents a good opportunity for contractors, subcontractors and other workers because there is still substantial work to be completed.

The report recommended that the school adopt a formal performance evaluation process for contractors. In the past, the school has kept informal track of performance, but Jensen said that a more formal process should be created. From that process, a list could be generated of contractors and subcontractors.

“I don’t think it should be used as a debarment list, but a list the school can use to hold over the contractors, like a report card,” said Jensen.

Veilleux said the university has given the job of screening subcontractors to the general contractors.

“There are so many subs on jobs, and they’re generally hired by the general contractor or construction manager so we end up putting the burden on them. If you’re building a science building, you can have anywhere from 25 to 35 different subcontractors, and we have 10 major projects on campus going at any given time. That’s too much for our small staff to keep a handle on.”

Since the Capstone incident, the university has been paying closer attention to subcontractors and started offering training and information programs to make sure that all workers are aware of the labor laws.

The university started “beefing up” their qualification and review processes, keeping a closer eye on work sites, according to Veilleux. The school instituted a no-tolerance policy for contractors and subcontractors, recently firing a roofing subcontractor for violating prevailing wage laws.

According to Connecticut General Statutes, the prevailing wage is established by the Department of Labor for all state and municipal projects that meet certain criteria. Failure to pay the prevailing wage is a Class D felony under Connecticut law.

Jensen noted that the prevailing wage law is often difficult to enforce, noting that the process can be very paperwork-intensive for contractors.

“We looked at all of the violations and they weren’t any different from any other major construction job,” said Jensen, explaining that the majority of the violations came from accidental misclassification of workers.

The report also recommended that the university could do a better job tracking project quality. Currently, the school has been tracking quality on a project-by-project basis and there is no mechanism for tracking UConn 2000 as a whole.

A third recommendation was to maintain a full-time safety manager on site. Currently, the school has an owner-controlled insurance program that utilizes the on-campus safety manager. The report said that position should continue regardless of the status of the insurance.

Aside from the recent legislative report, there are a few other checks built into the system. The university puts together its own reports for the Legislature every six months, and the Labor Department visits the school’s construction sites three days a week.

“It’s a little unusual that we have so many positive findings,” said Jensen.