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Labor council hopes to make contractors pay in Lynn

Katie Cohen an organizer of the North Shore Labor Council gets ready to speak at Lynn City Hall about wage theft violations. (Owen O'Rourke)

LYNN — If a group of union organizers gets their way, contractors who violate the state’s labor laws would be barred from doing business with the city.

Three dozen members of the North Shore Labor Council, a coalition of 50 unions representing 18,000 workers, crowded a City Hall hearing room Tuesday to urge the City Council to adopt an ordinance that would prohibit the city from hiring companies who have failed to pay their workers.

“Our goal is to protect workers from being cheated and keep them from getting these contracts while helping honest businesses,” said Kathryn Cohen, an organizer with the North Shore Labor Council.

Of the 14 firms prevented from doing work for the state or municipalities for public construction or public works projects by the Attorney General Maura Healey’s office over the last two years, one is from Lynn. Since 2015, there have been 26,767 wage complaints and citations issued statewide, 69 to Lynn companies.

At issue is the failure of some employers to pay their employees for work performed. While the state prohibits employers who have violated labor laws from seeking government contracts, some are able to sign deals because no one is checking, Cohen said.

“We know some debarred contractors are still getting work and we need to strengthen enforcement,” she said.

Under the proposed ordinance, a volunteer Wage Theft Advisory Council would be appointed by the mayor and City Council. The six-member panel would review lists of companies who violate labor laws from the Attorney General’s office and sign off on the company seeking work from the city.

Community Labor United reports $700 million worth of wages go unpaid annually to about 350,000 Massachusetts workers. Of that number, $5.2 million in wages is recovered by the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division.

Ward 6 City Councilor Peter Capano said the ordinance is crucial because without it, honest employers are at a disadvantage.

Jeffrey Crosby, president of the North Shore Labor Council, said 127 workers from Lynn have filed complaints with the Fair Labor Division over the last two years.

“It’s simple: if you work in this country, you should get paid for it,” he said.

Kathleen Santora, a member of Local 939 Painters & Allied Trade union and a longtime Lynn resident, said the city’s renaissance will bring lots of work for union members.

“Wage theft hurts everyone across the board, to the most vulnerable to higher income wage earners, it is important to pass this ordinance,” she said.

Eduardo Perez, a forklift operator at Logan International Airport and a Lynn resident, said he attended the hearing to let  councilors know more protection is needed for workers.

“We are here because we need another tool to fight wage theft,” he said. “Many employers play games with paying wages and everyone needs protection.”

The council did not take any action.

But City Councilor-at-Large Hong Net assured the group he is on their side.

“We will try to get this passed as soon as possible,” he said. “Just give us a little more time.”

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