San Francisco Independent/or Chronicle

Asbestos Workers Without Health Coverage

by Matt Isaacs

San Francisco, USA Deep in the basement of San Francisco's City Hall, a crew of one woman and four men strip asbestos from the walls, a dangerous job by anyone's standards. But despite the hazardous work conditions, the crew has not received Health and Welfare benefits since January, 1997.

All the workers, four Latinos and an African-American, belong to Laborers Local 67, the asbestos and toxic abatement union. Their employer, CST Environmental, is usually non-union, but on this job pays its crew the "prevailing wage," $10 an hour, under a "one job agreement" with the Laborers Union.

But since January, when the project changed from lead to asbestos removal, the company has denied the workers their benefits. According to CST Vice- President David Taylor, prevailing wages for lead removal include a benefit package. But Taylor said the workers, while removing asbestos, do not deserve health benefits according to the prevailing wage, because they lack the experience, measured in hours, to qualify.

There are five pay scales for asbestos workers: Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, Asbestos Specialist 1, and Asbestos Specialist 2. According to Taylor, all the workers on the job are classified as Step 1, with 0 to 2,000 hours. Prevailing wage dictates that a worker does not receive Health and Welfare benefits until reaching Step 2. He said he has assumed that every member of his crew is Step 1, because that is what he requested from Local 67.

Taylor, however, has overlooked the fact that three of the five crew members have accumulated thousands more hours than they need to qualify for benefits, working on lead and asbestos jobs for CST and other companies. "I'm not sure it's a company's duty to dig into every employees work history to see that they've accumulated those hours," Taylor said. "I assumed, and maybe wrongly, that if the workers had enough hours to go on to Step 2, then they would have said something. If I was sitting above Step 1, and knew that I could get higher wages and better benefits, then I would speak up."

According to their check stubs, Elena Ramirez and Antonio Ramirez have accrued well above 2000 hours on CST's payroll, working for the company since it started the City Hall project in 1994. Antonio Ramirez has kept careful records. Working on asbestos removal since 1989, he has proof of working over 5,000 hours, qualifying him for the title of Asbestos Specialist 2 with a salary of $18 an hour and a full health benefits package. Taylor said he has been aware that the two employees have accumulated over 2,000 hours working for his company, but he thought that hours accrued while working on lead did not count towards asbestos hours.

The union agreement clearly says they do. The workers said they have complained, but nothing has been done to remedy the situation. Antonio Ramirez said he has complained to the union representative, Jerry Rodarte, three times. "I told him that I pay my union dues every month and I deserve some protection," Ramirez said. "It doesn't matter what I say because nothing comes."

While waiting for his benefits, Ramirez' wife has had two children, one in April, 1995, another in July, 1997. To pay for the hospital bills, Ramirez requested that he be laid off so that he could receive Medi-Cal benefits. Another worker on the crew, Juan Hernandez, has followed suit, quitting at the end of July to receive Medi-Cal for his pregnant wife.

Rodarte said he has done "everything he can do." He said he has filed eight grievances since 1994 with the union's Northern California District Council for a variety of CST infractions. He said one of the grievances requests compensation for all the money his workers have had to pay "out of pocket" for medical expenses. But thus far the grievances have been mired in paperwork, Rodarte said, and the District Council has not taken action against CST. "All this makes me look bad because it seems like I'm not doing anything," said Rodarte,. "but people don't understand that I've got to wait for people to call me back, I've got paperwork, I'm very busy."

Rodarte has resisted pulling his workers from the job in a strike. He said that Local 67 members are spread too thin around the Bay Area for a strike to be effective. "These guys just want to work, whatever their conditions. Even if I told these guys to walk off the job, they would send their brothers or cousins, just to bring some money to their families."

Cal/OSHA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Laborers Local 882 and Asbestos Workers Local 5 in southern California, have all taken their respective whacks at CST Environmental. Cal/OSHA has cited CST for over eight "serious violations," fining the company $2685 since 1991 for a multitude of safety hazards. The administration is also currently conducting two major investigations into the company with fines estimated at $50,000 and $14,000 respectively.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Environmental Protection Agency fined CST Environmental $15,000 on March 18, 1994 for using untrained workers to remove asbestos from a Los Angeles elementary school. The Laborers Local 882 have requested from the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service an investigation of CST Environmental for cash payments to employees, avoiding taxes, overtime pay, ERISA-mandated benefit contributions, and state prevailing wage violations. Local 882, along with Asbestos Workers Local 5, have also passed out leaflets accusing CST of union busting.

After speaking with reporters, Taylor of CST, has a change of heart regarding the workers at City Hall. After re-examining the union agreement, he acknowledged that Elena Ramirez and Antonio Ramirez, each with over 2,000 clocked on the CST payroll, deserve health benefits. He said he has promoted Elena to a Step 2 worker and Antonio to an Asbestos Specialist 1, still below what the laborers deserve counting their hours with different companies, but enough to receive Health and Welfare benefits effective August 15. Antonio Ramirez says that he has not been told of his recent promotion. "I will believe it when I see it," he said.

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