CINCINNATI - The Ohio Department of Commerce is suing a Sharonville company to recover wages for dozens of construction workers who built the Encore luxury apartment tower at 8th and Sycamore streets Downtown.
The lawsuit alleges R & R Steel LLC violated Ohio’s prevailing wage law by paying 63 workers about $151,000 less than they were entitled to receive for their work installing rebar in the 17-story tower.
After WCPO’s I-Team brought the “wage theft” allegations to light last February, city and state officials spent months investigating the matter.
Ultimately, state officials determined that workers were underpaid not only at the Encore building, but Oakley Station as well. R & R Steel worked on a publicly financed parking garage at the retail and housing development off I-71. The Commerce Department alleges 43 workers on the Oakley garage project were underpaid by about $12,000, according to the Jan. 8 lawsuit, filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.
R & R Steel President Ronnie Estes denies he underpaid workers, just as he did a year ago.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “Everybody has been paid for every dollar that they’re owed on that job site.”
The lawsuit said Ohio has recovered about $117,000 in back wages so far. But it continues to seek nearly $46,000 in unpaid wages from R & R Steel along with $146,000 in penalties. It claims R & R Steel acted illegally by "misclassifying employees, paying them at a rate incommensurate with the work performed, failing to pay the proper benefits and paying them less than prevailing wage" as required by Ohio law.
“It wasn’t about the money. It’s about standing up for our rights,” said Edward Gonzalez, a local steelworker who complained to city officials in 2016 when he discovered he was being paid less than other workers on the 8th and Sycamore job site. He talked to WCPO in early 2017, just as the state investigation was gearing up. Ohio's lawsuit said Gonzalez was underpaid by $8,248.
“Hopefully Ron Estes learns that he can’t take advantage of people like us,” Gonzalez said.
Estes blames union activity for the litigation he now faces.
“You’ve got two guys employed by the union that created all this,” he said. “All I want to do is make a living.”
In addition to the state complaint, Estes faces a Jan. 9 lawsuit by TWC Concrete Services LLC, which used R & R Steel as a subcontractor at 8th and Sycamore. TWC claims it paid $105,000 to settle the wage dispute with state officials in November. Now it wants that money back, plus attorney fees and expenses.
TWC’s lawsuit said R & R Steel “ceased all communications” with the state after it became clear that the company wasn’t paying its workers properly. So it settled with state officials in exchange for a promise that the Commerce Department wouldn’t name TWC, the city of Cincinnati or the Encore project’s general contractor, Al. Neyer Inc., in future litigation.