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State investigates use of Pa. shelter workers

Hired for project at Copley Marriott

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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Contractors using laborers from a Philadelphia church shelter to renovate Boston’s Marriott Copley Place hotel are under investigation by state authorities for potential violations of wage laws and other worker protections, according to people briefed on the matter.

Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating whether workers from Victory Outreach International, a church that provides shelter and rehabilitation services to people with drug and alcohol problems, were brought into the state to be used as cheap labor for the renovation project, according to those familiar with the case.

State authorities - Coakley’s office among them - are trying to crack down on illegal labor practices in construction and other industries. In February, a new human trafficking law will take effect that calls for up to 20 years in prison for people found guilty of importing workers into the state for illegal purposes.

A Victory Outreach pastor in Philadelphia, Joseph Bishop, said his church’s laborers were interviewed by Massachusetts investigators Wednesday about their working conditions at the Marriott, which is among the city’s largest luxury hotels, with 1,100 rooms.

Bishop did not know how much the laborers were being paid but said the church has sent multiple groups of workers from its shelter in Philadelphia to the Boston Marriott.

Based near San Diego, Victory Outreach is an evangelical church with more than 700 churches and centers in the United States and abroad. On its website, the church describes itself as a Christian organization “called to the task of evangelizing and discipling the hurting people of the world,’’ according to its website, and it also provides shelter, rehabilitation services, and employment opportunities to members struggling with substance abuse, poverty, and other issues.

Bishop said Victory Outreach has 20- to 30-year relationships with construction firms to provide work for church members. He believes the firm using its church members at the Boston Marriott is Installation Plus of Corona, Calif., where Victory Outreach also has a branch. His church is not paid for supplying workers, Bishop said.

Installation Plus is a subcontractor handling the removal and installation of furniture at the Marriott. Its owner, George Herrera, referred questions to the main contractor on the Boston job - Baystate Services Inc. of Woburn. That firm’s chief executive, Jeff Snyder, acknowledged that Victory Outreach workers were being employed on the site, but he said he did not know anything about their pay or working conditions.

“I’m not sure how they are being compensated,’’ Snyder said. He said he has not talked to Installation Plus about the workers.

The Marriott Copley Place is owned by Host Hotels & Resorts Inc., a national hospitality company that owns 121 luxury hotels across the United States and abroad.

A spokeswoman for Host said the company knows that Victory Outreach workers are employed at the Boston hotel but stressed that the contract for the renovation work requires “Bay State and any subcontractor it hires to comply with all laws, including any applicable wage and hour laws.’’

A spokesman for Coakley’s office said it does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations as a matter of policy. But several officials briefed on the investigation said authorities are investigating whether subcontractors are circumventing state labor laws, paying the workers less than the $8-an-hour minimum wage, for example, or under the table, or not paying mandatory unemployment insurance taxes. The sources asked for anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, Joanne Goldstein, state secretary of labor and workforce development, said her office has recommended that a special state task force that investigates complaints of worker exploitation look into the conditions at the Marriott.

The Copley Marriott renovation has previously had labor problems. The state Department of Industrial Accidents issued temporary stop work orders late last year to three firms on the project, including Installation Plus, and fined them for failing to provide proper worker’s compensation insurance.

Installation Plus, which in November reported having 14 employees on the project, paid a $6,750 fine on Dec. 6, according to state records. Two other subcontractors - Jayson Connor, a flooring business based in Marshfield, and RB Wallcovering Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla. - paid fines of $500 and $700, respectively.

Snyder, of Bay State Services, said the subcontractors had workers’ compensation insurance when they began work on the Copley Marriott, but were unaware of insurance requirements specific to Massachusetts.

“They were informed of it, they produced the required documentation, and it was all accepted,’’ Snyder said.

Local labor unions have also been picketing outside the hotel, protesting the use of nonunion labor.

“Our concern is that Host Hotels is trying to take advantage of the recession by bringing in out-of-state laborers to do work that has traditionally been done by local union tradespeople,’’ said Mark Erlich, president of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters.

Victory Outreach was founded in East Los Angeles 1967 by Sonny and Julie Arguinzoni, specializing in what it calls, “transformational ministry.’’ Its closest church is in Bridgeport, Conn. It has branches outside the United States in countries from Mexico to the Netherlands to New Zealand.

Victory Outreach is known for a boot-camp-like regimen at rehabilitation homes, where it preaches redemption through sacrifice and obedience. The church came under scrutiny in the 1990s by California regulators who found that many of its shelters in that state were kept in poor condition and failed fire inspections.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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