UNDER THE ROSS ISLAND BRIDGE: Investigating a low-bid nonunion contractor, a union finds problems aplenty

Under the Ross Island Bridge on Feb. 8, a painter working for nonunion Abhe & Svoboda plummeted 40 feet and landed on a co-worker, his own son, putting both in the hospital with serious injuries. Oregon-OSHA is investigating the accident and will produce a report in the next six months. But co-worker Omar Rubi says he has a pretty good idea what happened.

Near an over-large ladder hole on the highest level of scaffolding, a loose metal plate had become a trip hazard, Rubi says — and Abhe & Svoboda employees were routinely failing to use fall protection. Workers at heights are supposed to wear harnesses and tie them to lines attached to scaffolding supports, but Rubi says that often wasn’t happening.

In fact, the day before the accident, Rubi told co-workers they have the right under federal law to speak up about safety or other concerns. Soon after, a company safety inspector said he’d be writing Rubi up for not attaching his harness to a line. Rubi felt he’d been singled out for speaking up, and took pictures of his foremen and third-party inspectors not wearing harnesses. At the end of his shift, he was told not to come in the next day, despite having worked on the project five days a week since July 16, 2016.

An important thing to know about Rubi: He’s a union “salt.”

A salt is a worker who takes a job as the agent of a union. Salts document management  misdeeds, educate co-workers about their rights, and even take part in union organizing campaigns.

“When it’s ‘go, go, go’ sometimes people don’t pay attention. … Traditionally when you’re working in a dangerous environment like that, employers don’t usually rush you to get things done because they understand the liability issue.” — Abhe & Svoboda employee Omar Rubi

In this case, Rubi was sent in by Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5 on suspicion that something wasn’t right on the Ross Island Bridge repainting project. It’s a complicated three-year deal that involves the construction of temporary support structures and containment systems underneath the bridge in order to safely sandblast and repaint three steel arch spans that have aged and rusted since they were last painted in the 1960s.

The Ross Island Bridge spans the Willamette River, connecting U.S. Route 26 between southwest and southeast Portland. In 1976, ownership was transferred from Multnomah County to the state.

Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) estimated that bids would come in at $30 to $40 million. But nonunion Abhe & Svoboda of Minnesota won the contract with a low bid of $22.3 million — $11 million below the union-signatory contractor, Hercules Painting of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

The union wanted to know how Abhe & Svoboda could bid so low, even though they’re required to pay the same hourly wage and benefits as their union competitor, under the state “little Davis-Bacon” law, which requires contractors on government construction projects to pay the prevailing wage. Could they be cutting corners to make the project pencil out? Rubi got a job there to find out, and soon found problems.

Paint in some cases was being applied at the wrong thickness or in conditions that were too cold or humid to meet manufacturer specifications, Rubi said. In places, paint was bubbling or chipping, or missing required “striping” along joints.

From along the river bank, Painters District Council 5 field representative Scott Oldham took video of workers without proper respirators, suits, safety glasses or fall protection using air blowers to clean up sandblasting debris when the structure wasn’t fully contained by tarps. Oldham says that could result in the toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, and chromium falling into the Willamette River.

But as bad or worse were conditions for workers. As Rubi describes it, Abhe & Svoboda’s under-the-bridge crew of 20 to 30 workers — many of whom were brought in from out of town — was a hotbed of racial and gender discord and tension. African-American workers were derided for laziness and referred to as monkeys and leeches by co-workers and supervisors, Rubi says.

Rubi, a native Spanish speaker, arrived at work on Election Day to find his locker defaced with obscene images and the words “Trump 16.” A supervisor told him, on threat of firing, not to talk to a female African-American co-worker who had complained of extreme sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Oldham did some research, and found violations and fines on numerous Abhe & Svoboda bridge projects. Some examples:

  • Connecticut, 2007 – $1.3 million in unpaid wages for paying painters at the wage for laborers and carpenters
  • Astoria, Oregon, 2011 – Nearly $30,000 in penalties for dozens of OSHA violations
  • Hawaii, 2012 – $15,500 in penalties for three serious OSHA violations
  • Fresno County, California, 2013 – $90,900 in civil penalties for failure to employ apprentices as required
  • Mendocino County, California, 2016 – $60,000 in back wages and $55,000 in penalties for prevailing wage violations

And this wasn’t even the first time Abhe & Svoboda had been scrutinized by Portland-area unions. In 1998, when Abhe & Svoboda was in charge of a $21.8 million renovation of the Hawthorne Bridge, the Painters and Iron Workers unions collected evidence showing that lead-contaminated debris was falling into the Willamette River and grounds near the jobsite, and the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council sued the company for failing to hire local construction workers and for not being a registered training agent, as required by a Multnomah County ordinance.

On Feb. 1, 2017, Oldham emailed an ODOT manager with details and photo evidence of his concerns about paint, environmental, safety, and work culture problems on the Ross Island Bridge project. ODOT’s Metro East Area Manager Rich Watanabe responded by email Feb. 8, addressing the concerns point by point. Any performance problems will be caught by qualified ODOT project inspectors, Watanabe said.

“ODOT makes special efforts to ensure projects are being constructed safely and in a manner that meets our requirements to deliver a quality product for our stakeholders,” Watanabe wrote.

That was six hours after the accident.

Oldham felt that wasn’t good enough, and wrote back: “I stated in previous emails that we have additional information, daily logs from workers on the site, statements, pictures, video documentation and direct contact with the painters onsite. I am disheartened by your choice to not take these sources into consideration.”

As for the accident itself, Oregon-OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin told the Labor Press he couldn’t discuss details of the agency’s active investigation, but promised to share the results when the investigation is complete.

In fact, OSHA had been out to the Ross Island project at least once before, on June 8, 2016, but found no violations and issued no citations. The complaint they were investigating? That there were holes employees could fall through while sandblasting and painting the bridge.

Abhe & Svoboda did not immediately respond to a call from the Labor Press.