Charlotte construction company cited for 3 worker deaths now under federal labor investigation
A Charlotte-based construction company that was fined earlier this year after three workers died in a January scaffolding collapse is under investigation again. This time, the U.S. Department of Labor is working to determine if Friends Masonry Construction complied with federal minimum wage, child labor and overtime pay requirements.
Gilberto Mónico Fernández, Jesus "Chuy" Olivares and José Canaca Bonilla fell 70 feet to their deaths when the scaffolding under their feet collapsed at the Hanover East Morehead apartments site in Dilworth.
As a result, their employer, Friends Masonry Construction, was fined about $43,500 by the North Carolina Department of Labor. That was later reduced to about $29,000.
Carol Brooke, a senior attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, says the fatality case helped tip off the U.S. Department of Labor to other concerns — like wage theft and the need to protect immigrant workers who feared retaliation.
“As it turns out, there were issues beyond the health and safety concerns,” Brooke said. “I think that the fatalities sort of laid the groundwork for [investigating] the fear that workers at that work site experience and why the U.S. Department of Labor needs those workers to be protected from potential retaliation related to their immigration status.”
The U.S. Department of Labor suggested this month that the workers receive deferred action, a temporary protection from the Department of Homeland Security that allows a person without an immigration status to remain in the United States and cooperate with investigators.
The protection, if conferred by DHS, would likely last two years and provide a work permit, as well as a Social Security number. It would not provide a pathway to citizenship, however.
“It's to assist the labor agency in being able to speak to witnesses or people directly impacted by what has happened, to get the information that they need so that people feel free to speak to them without fear of immigration consequences or threats from their employer,” Brooke said.
Alejandro Sanchez with Friends Masonry said the company doesn’t have anything to hide from investigators. He said he considered the company’s workers to be more like friends or brothers than his employees.
The Department of Labor says its investigators with the Wage and Hour Division have received information that Friends Masonry workers were misclassified as independent contractors, subject to improper deductions and did not receive overtime pay. The department is appealing for more workers to come forward and share their stories.
“WHD must guard against the use of immigration status as a tool of retaliation against workers asserting their legal rights,” a letter issued this month by the U.S. Department of Labor read. “Low-wage and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse because they are often reluctant to speak out about violations of the law for fear of reprisal.”
Another company involved in the state’s worker fatality case, Old North State Masonry, is not part of the federal investigation. Old North State is currently contesting its $87,012 fine, issued in June by the North Carolina Department of Labor.
People who have worked for Friends Masonry since July 25, 2021, and are interested in speaking with investigators can contact the North Carolina Justice Center by phone, text or Whatsapp at (919)909-0580.
Full Department of Labor statement of interest regarding Friends Masonry Construction: