Asbestos abatement workers seal off and remove cancer-causing fibers. Credit: Asbestos Testing/Flickr

Demolition and asbestos removal isn’t glorious work, but it’s crucial to renovating the many old government buildings spread around the nation’s capital. Workers in hard hats knock holes in walls, while others, in face masks with respirators, seal off the lung-scarring, cancer-causing fibers.

“It’s a dangerous job, but it pays pretty decent,” said Louis Gatling, a Washington, D.C., asbestos worker.

Asbestos abatement workers seal off and remove cancer-causing fibers.Credit: Asbestos Testing/Flickr

It’s also ripe for racial discrimination. Certain government contractors don’t want to hire black workers, and they don’t treat their predominantly Latino workforce well either, according to interviews and a pair of government lawsuits.

“They’re not playing fair on the jobs,” said Gatling, who is black. “It’s sad but it’s true. We just deal with it. Something needs to be done about it.”

Take Maryland-based Potomac Abatement Inc., which has done work for the U.S. Marine Corps, the Smithsonian Institution and even the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Supervisors screamed obscenities at Hispanic employees and repeatedly sexually harassed Hispanic female employees,” says a lawsuit filed by the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

“Our investigation found egregious behavior,” said the office’s director, Patricia Shiu, in a statement. “Potomac Abatement’s treatment of its workers is appalling.”

In Washington, D.C., the city requires contractors to hire a certain percentage of local workers for projects it funds. So the company added 17 black workers to its “almost entirely Hispanic” workforce to meet those rules.

After a few months, as those projects came to a close, the firm laid off all the black workers, but kept on most of the Latinos, according to the complaint.

Potomac Abatement, which has been accused of race discrimination, worked on the renovation of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.Credit: G. Edward Johnson/ Wikimedia

Potomac Abatement denied the allegations in a statementsaying the government “has chosen not to recognize the significant actions Potomac has taken to diversify its workforce.”

“Because it’s a personnel related issue we can’t really go into detail,” said Albert Horak, Potomac’s chief financial officer. “I would love to, but I can’t.”

WMS Solutions, a Baltimore staffing agency that provides workers for government demolition and asbestos projects, also favored hiring Latino workers, and paid women less than men, a separate Labor Department complaint says. When those Latino workers faced harassment on the job – including racial slurs and physical attacks – WMS managers didn’t do anything about it, the suit said.

The company had millions of dollars in contracts for projects involving the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of the Navy, among others.

WMS Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, but is contesting the allegations. A decision by an administrative law judge is expected next year.

Jose Gonzalez got an inside view. A recruiter for WMS reached out to him, Gonzalez said, because he did outreach for his Falls Church, Virginia, church and helped people find jobs. But the recruiter didn’t want women, saying they take too many bathroom breaks and work slowly, Gonzalez recalled. And he didn’t want black workers, either.

“He said, ‘They’re trouble makers,’ ” Gonzalez remembered. “It bothered me because I really believe in equal opportunity. I believe a human being is a human being.”

Gonzalez, now an organizer with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, testified at a hearing in the WMS case this summer.

Across the country, other companies have been excluding black workers in favor of Latinos. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found the dynamic prevalent in the temp industry, from an agency supplying workers to LG Electronics Inc. in Alabama to an agency staffing industrial plants in Illinois. Just this month, a temp agency called Resource Employment Solutions agreed to pay $435,000 to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit for turning away black applicants in favor of Latinos for positions at a FedEx facility.

Academics and worker advocates explain the pattern this way: Many employers prefer immigrants because they’re more vulnerable and more likely accept exploitative conditions.

There are certainly elements of the two asbestos cases that illustrate the point.

Potomac Abatement, for example, would regularly deny water and breaks to Latino workers, while providing them to black workers, the lawsuit said. Latinos who complained would be sent home for the day without pay.

Latino workers sent out by WMS Solutions, the other government complaint stated, faced harassment in part by being “shown videos of Hispanic workers being taken into custody and deported.”

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.

 

 

Will Evans is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting has prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations have exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.