A Coeur d’Alene tree-planting company and its subcontractor are contesting federal investigators’ findings that they underpaid migrant crews on national forest jobs in Idaho and Oregon by more than $100,000.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, Alpha Services LLC paid workers on a piece-rate basis where they failed to earn the prevailing hourly rate required by federal law. The company contracts for reforestation work with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Alpha Services also showed federal investigators inaccurate records of the number of hours the employees worked, creating a false impression that workers’ earnings met the required rate, agency officials said.
Echo Group LLC, a subcontractor, was also responsible for failing to pay the prevailing wages, investigators said.
But Robert Zahaire, co-owner of Alpha Services, disputes the government’s account. The companies are contesting the investigation’s findings to a federal administrative law judge.
“We take a lot of pride in how we run the business and how we treat our employees,” Zahaire said.
Alpha Services has hired Latin American employees through guest worker programs since the mid-1990s. Zahaire said companies that use the program undergo lots of scrutiny, and that Alpha Services is audited one to three times yearly.
In the current case, Zahaire said there were disagreements over how travel times and breaks were calculated. “It felt like the investigator was overzealous in defense of workers,” he said.
Though the case is ongoing, Zahaire said Alpha Services paid $66,295 in back wages to 57 employees as a “good faith measure,” though the company specified that it did not agree with the investigator’s conclusions. Echo Group paid $37,339 to 48 employees.
The U.S. Department of Labor also fined Alpha Services $59,500 and Echo Group $10,600 for prevailing wage violations.
Alpha Services contracts for tree-planting in the West and the South. Most of the company’s work is on private timber lands, with about 5 percent of its contracts on federal lands, Zahaire said.
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division works to protect employees, ensuring they receive their “hard-earned wages,” said Thomas Silva, the division’s district director in Portland.
Migrant forestry workers “regularly face language barriers, often fear stepping forward when wage or safety violations occur, and have limited access to public services since they work and live in isolated areas,” he said in an email.
Companies with federal contracts worth more than $2,500 must pay their workers at a rate equal to or greater than the prevailing wage in the local area.
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