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Originally published October 24, 2012 at 8:39 PM | Page modified October 25, 2012 at 2:32 PM

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$3.7M payout settles pay differences for light-rail work

Workers who helped build elevated sections of Sound Transit light-rail line to Sea-Tac Airport sued over pay discrepancies and won.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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It was the lure of better pay that got Michael Pardo to leave his job driving a forklift at a fruit company and take a job outside Wenatchee casting concrete bridge pieces for Sound Transit's elevated light-rail line.

His new job paid $11 an hour, good money at the time, and workweeks could extend to 60 hours, he said. "We got some overtime, and people were pretty happy about it."

But then a couple of workers who transferred from Tukwila, where the hollow segments were being cinched together to make bridge spans, mentioned how much more they had been paid.

And that's when a group of workers, including Pardo, ended up filing a class-action lawsuit, claiming they should be paid the same prevailing wage as workers on the Tukwila job site.

The legal action ended with a court-approved settlement earlier this year. And last week, checks totaling $3.7 million were mailed to 328 people who worked at Bethlehem Construction in Cashmere, Chelan County, from 2005-2007.

As a result of the dispute, casting workers building bridge pieces for Sound Transit will be paid at prevailing rates — as much as $50 an hour for journeyman carpenters in King County.

The transit agency will be building aerial guideways from Northgate to Lynnwood and in parts of Bellevue over the next decade.

More than 2,500 of the concrete segments now support Link light-rail track in Tukwila and SeaTac, in a job that was finished on time and on budget, and that earned industry honors for Bethlehem, prime contractor PCL and Sound Transit. The jobs at Bethlehem Construction were originally classified under "fabricated precast concrete products" with a prevailing hourly wage of $8.61, based on state Department of Labor & Industries tables. The pay was based on the premise that these were generic parts requiring less skill than that of a carpenter in the field.

Sound Transit told companies in late 2004 they could pay the lower rate if parts were made at an "established manufacturing facility." Later, company executives say L&I affirmed they could pay the precast rate, which was $8.61 an hour.

Locally owned Bethlehem started out building fruit warehouses in the 1980s and progressed to constructing arenas, big-box stores, parking garages and prisons.

The company paid a few dollars more an hour than the state's listed wage — "providing many good family jobs for Cashmere and Wenatchee-area Bethlehem personnel over the two and a half plus years that the project took place," said a statement from Bob Connelly, a precast-products executive.

Typically workers earned $9 to $12 an hour, but some made up to $18 an hour, said Steve Pendergrass, business manager for Ironworkers Union Local 86 in Tukwila, which was tracking the issue.

The Cashmere segments contained steel rebar — fabricated into multiple shapes and sizes, with carefully measured ducts to allow on-site fastening.

At Local 86's request, L&I ruled in January 2007 the segments were essentially custom-made pieces demanding high skill, and workers should be paid at construction-worker rates.

"There's always pressure, on any job site, to pay less rather than more," said Martin Garfinkel of Seattle, an attorney for the suing workers. Neither Sound Transit nor the union was a party to the lawsuit.

While the state acknowledged Bethlehem "had relied on a statement from an L&I employee" regarding the wages, in the end "it all comes down to fairness and following the rule of law — the same pay for all workers and contractors, even if the contractor had been reasonable in first relying on an employee statement," said Ann Selover, state prevailing-wage program manager.

Throughout Sound Transit's history, elected officials on the transit board stressed how the rail program will provide well-paid construction jobs. "We can't make up what the prevailing wage is; we have to go with what L&I says it is," said spokesman Bruce Gray this week.

PCL Construction, an international company, agreed to pay the $3.7 million, plus attorney fees and other costs, for a total $5.5 million.

As for future jobs, Sound Transit met with bidders on its new South 200th Street rail-line extension in SeaTac to clarify they must pay higher labor rates. L&I tables show carpenters making $29 to $50 an hour, depending on experience, if the pieces are made in King County. PCL went on to win the $169 million contract and will build two more miles including 1,100 overhead segments.

"We are going to be setting up a casting yard and building the segments ourselves," said Luis Ventoza, PCL president for U.S. infrastructure management.

Pardo, 59, said he used his settlement check to pay off debts and still managed to save most of the $32,000 for retirement.

"Everything's working out good. This lets me put money in the bank and sit on it," he said. "I'm just glad it turned out that we got what was due us. We did good work at Bethlehem."

Pardo said he's now self-employed building furniture and is looking forward to a motorcycle ride to Sturgis, S.D.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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