Four local construction workers have filed six mechanics’ liens totaling $12,994 for allegedly unpaid wages against a subcontractor working on Payson Unified School District’s construction projects. Two of the men also filed complaints earlier this month with the Arizona Registrar of Contract-ors.
Payson residents Michael Garre and Rhett Melton said Pen’s Construction partly paid them for work completed. Chris Cumpton and Justin Schulz, also from Payson, say they received no wages at all for the time they worked while under verbal contract with the Phoenix-based Pen’s Construction, a subcontractor for W.E. O’Neil Construction.
Liens filed by both Garre and Melton claimed unpaid wages of about $4,000 each for the roughly $11,000 both said they were owed for work completed on Julia Randall Elementary and Rim Country Middle School.
“It took us three weeks to get our first check,” said Melton. After that, he said, payment was sporadic if checks came at all.
Melton and Garre say Pen’s fired them after a colleague contacted local media, including a radio station, about the allegedly unpaid wages.
“They were upset with us, so they told us we were laid off permanently,” said Garre.
“That’s called what? Blowing the whistle?” asked his wife, Theresa. The president of Pen’s did not return a call for comment before press time.
Cumpton said he had not received any of the $1,971 owed to him, and Justin Schulz said the same for nearly $2,500 worth of work completed at Julia Randall.
Cumpton said he received a W-2 form which claimed earnings of $902. “I thought it was a joke,” he said. Schulz also said he received tax forms for wages he never received.
Each man filed his lien in January. However, Mike Marr of W.E. O’Neil said it’s not legally possible to place a mechanics’ lien on public property, which the Arizona Revised Statutes appeared to confirm.
“If you’ve got $19, you can go down and file a lien on anybody you care to,” he said.
Reached by phone Thursday, Marr said the dispute centered on the number of hours worked. He gave the subcontractor until later this month to resolve the issue. If it’s not settled, Marr said he would withhold payment from Pen’s.
An anonymous letter sent to local media, and printed by one local newspaper, spurred Marr to address the school board on Monday night.
Board members thanked Marr for addressing the issue, although they said it wasn’t necessary. Board member Rory Huff took issue with the letter’s anonymity. An unsigned letter, he said, is akin to a tabloid article.
“I’m a strong proponent of freedom of the press,” Marr said Thursday. “I’m also a strong proponent of people getting paid.”
Payson Superintendent Casey O’Brien was not available for comment before press time.
The anonymous letter also alleged that W.E. O’Neil contracted Valley businesses over local ones. However, Marr said many local companies had neither the bonding capacity for such a large project, nor the interest because the downturn had not affected local companies at the time of bidding.
The workers could sue Pen’s for unpaid wages, but Theresa said a lawyer wanted $175 for an initial consultation.
“We don’t have any money anyway because we don’t have jobs,” said Melton.
Garre said he has worked in construction for years, but has never encountered this circumstance. “This is really the first time I’ve ever had to take legal action.”
Garre and Melton also filed complaints with the state’s registry for contractors over the wage dispute. Once a complaint is filed with the registrar, a company has 10 calendar days to respond. This waiting period is where Garre and Melton’s complaints now stand, according to Brian Livingston, assistant director for the registrar.
If a contractor fails to respond in 10 days, a worker can request that the registrar issue a citation against the contractor’s license. An “inspector” then decides the merit of the allegations, and an administrative hearing can result, in which the worker must prove the allegations.
A complaint filed with the registrar could lead to a loss of contractor’s license.
Bill Brunson, a spokesperson with the Internal Revenue Service, said that fines for unknowingly submitting false tax forms to employees start at $50 per statement. If the falsification is purposeful, fines begin at $100.