ONARCHITECTURE- Trouble in paradise? Latino workers on the Woodlands go unpaid</span>

The $60 million 300-unit Woodlands development on Sunset Avenue extended will be a "resort-style" condo community for students.

When it's finished, the $60 million 300-unit Woodlands development on Sunset Avenue extended will be a resort-style condo community for students, complete with two swimming pools, a fitness center, movie theater, clubhouse, and tanning salon. However, while some lucky UVA students will be living in luxury this fall, dozens of mostly migratory Latino workers on the site now are living what one project manager calls a "nightmare."


As the development nears its August 1 completion date, it appears a contract dispute between the general contractor, Atlanta-based Dovetail Companies, and its framing subcontractor, Florida-based Coastal Lumber and Framing, could delay the project, or worse.

According to whistle-blower Robert Flood, an independent construction manager from Fluvanna hired by Coastal, the mostly Latino workers subcontracted by Coastal haven't been paid in as many as 12 weeks, as a contractual argument has Dovetail withholding pay until the job is finished.

"I think it's downright underhanded," says Flood, who plans to give his notice to Coastal over the issue and has already contacted the Commonwealth Attorney's office. "I was hoping I could get their money for them," says Flood, "but these people are predators.

"I'm just afraid there's going to be some violence up there," he adds. 

Joe Cantu, who says he's the only Charlottesville-based framing subcontractor on the job, confirms Flood's allegations, and says some of his men owe rent and haven't had money to buy food. According to Flood, some of the more than 40 workers he's managed have even been sleeping in the woods around the job site.

Flood says several workers and subcontractors walked off the job in the last few months, refusing to work until they got paid. Many workers, he says, have been sitting across the street from the site, just a few yards off the property line so they don't get arrested for trespassing, waiting for their money. However, Flood says many workers returned to the job after they were told that replacements would be hired to finish their work, and that those costs would be deducted from what they were owed.

"They're telling me that I'm not getting paid until I'm finished," says Cantu, who estimates he's owed about $20,000. "I was being paid by the hour, every two weeks... then they started holding. It's been more than a month since I've been paid."

Flood says as much as $250,000 is owed to five other subcontracting crews he managed for Coastal.

Cantu says he plans to file a lien on the Woodlands if he isn't paid soon, and says at least three other framing subcontractors have already filed liens. Liens prohibit the owners from transferring title to the property until the debts are satisfied.

"Right now, I would just like to get a few thousand," says Cantu.

Dovetail's Tommy Mulky, project manger for the Woodlands development, lays the blame on Coastal.

"They're in default on their contract," he says. "They're months behind schedule, the work has been poor. They probably bid the job for less than they should have." 

As Mulky explains, Dovetail has had to hire additional workers and foot the bill for some materials just to keep the project on schedule. He says he's aware that people are not getting paid, but he says Coastal "shot themselves in the foot" when they started getting "upside down," a construction biz euphemism for losing money. 

"They did their best to perform, but maybe they're working too far from home. Charlottesville has a fairly hard labor market," says Mulky, "and I think it was hard to find workers."

Mulky says he can't start paying bills, even partial payments, until he gets signed lien waivers from the subcontractors. 

"I could pay out $100,000 today," says Mulky, "but if they don't sign that lien waiver, then they could charge us later for work we don't know about yet."

Coastal's project manger, Fred Irateg, admits the "exaggerated schedule" caused them to fall behind, their bid was indeed low, and that Coastal didn't have the "biggest of crews [Dovetail] wanted." But he says he's baffled by Dovetail's hardball tactics. 

"I don't know why they're doing this," says Irateg. "Some of it was justified, because we were off schedule, but it's way out of hand. It's really turned into a nightmare."

Irateg says his company hasn't been paid since May 1 and that Dovetail owes them over $300,000.

"They're going to cry to you guys, but I'm going to lose money on this framing job," Mulky claims. "I'm just covering my a** so I don't get sued by the subcontractors. We would have kept paying them monthly, if they had stayed on time."

Indeed, Mulky says that other subcontractors who have kept on schedule (electricians, sheet rockers, HVAC guys) have all been paid regularly and on time, a claim the Hook confirmed with several subcontractors.

Likewise, Irateg says his company is concerned about the bottom line.

"I'm going to get back-charged a ton," he says of Dovetail. "They're going to work us where we aren't going to make a profit. We were a low bid anyway, so we weren't going to make much money anyway."

Mulky downplays the drama, explaining it's not uncommon for subcontractors to file liens.

"Anybody can file a lien. I've been liened on almost every job I've done," he says. "It's not uncommon when subcontractors start getting upside down. But we always pay. When the last building is finished, I'll pay Coastal. I will pay out the whole contract, but I don't think there will be much of anything left."

According to Flood, the Commonwealth Attorney's office has suggested the workers walk off the job, file liens, and go toLegal Aid for assistance. Lawyers told Flood that going to Legal Aid would in no way jeopardize anyone's legal status, but he says that many of the workers simply don't understand the system. 

"They're exploiting the fact that they have immigrants doing the work," says Flood, who ultimately blames the situation on the "acrid power struggle" between Coastal and Dovetail,  "because the workers are afraid of doing anything."