Minnesota Senate Democrats call on Vikings owners to address wage theft claims

By: - May 26, 2022 3:34 pm

The Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center building in Eagan, Minnesota. It was built for the Minnesota Vikings with union labor, but nonunion workers on luxury apartments in the same development say they’re owed more than $100,000 in wages. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer)

Twenty-five Minnesota Senate Democrats are calling on the Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, to take “strong and swift action” in response to allegations of wage theft at their 200-acre development in Eagan.

As first reported by the Minnesota Reformer, more than two dozen workers say they’re still owed more than $100,000 in wages from two subcontractors hired to work on Viking Lakes: Absolute Drywall and Property Maintenance and Construction. The workers have filed complaints with the state Department of Labor and Industry in hopes of being made whole.

“When workers come forward with claims of wage theft and mistreatment, they deserve swift action to remedy the situation,” said a letter addressed to the Wilf family and signed by Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen and 24 other state senators.

The lawmakers reminded the Wilfs that state taxpayers chipped in $348 million to build their new $1.1 billion stadium. Minneapolis taxpayers contributed an additional $150 million.

“As the beneficiaries of perhaps the largest taxpayer subsidy in Minnesota’s history, we contend a higher standard of scrutiny should apply to this situation,” the letter says.

While the workers were not directly employed by the Wilfs or their development arm, MV Ventures, the lawmakers are asking them to place funds into an escrow account to pay the workers should their allegations be substantiated by state investigators.

“The longer workers are forced to wait to be paid all the wages and damages they are owed, the more likely they are to be subjected to hardship and retaliation from their employers,” the letter says. “It is within your control to ensure workers on your project are paid what they are owed.”

A sign advertises open space for lease on the sprawling Viking Lakes development Monday, May 2, 2022 in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer)

Lester Bagley, public affairs director for the Minnesota Vikings, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Previously, he told the Reformer they were unaware of any unfair labor allegations at the Viking Lakes project.

“All selected subcontractors are legally entitled to bid and perform work in Minnesota. They also signed agreements ensuring fair labor practices for workers at the site and requiring strict compliance with all federal and state labor, benefit, workers’ compensation and wage laws,” Bagley wrote in an email to the Reformer.

The owner of Absolute Drywall, Daniel Ortega, has not returned multiple calls seeking comment. The owner of Property Maintenance and Construction denies the workers’ allegations. The owner of Advantage Construction, Chris Amiot, said he was aware of an “inquiry” by DLI but not the specifics.

The Vikings’ development arm, MV Ventures, contracted with Advantage Construction, which in turn subcontracted the work to Property Maintenance and Construction.

Subcontractor has history of labor violations

The carpenters’ union, which organized the workers, warned executives with the Vikings and MV Ventures that at least one of the subcontractors they selected had a history of labor violations.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor found Absolute Drywall employed a 14-year-old to hang drywall in violation of child labor laws. The teenager sometimes worked more than 50 hours a week.

The case prompted a second investigation and the feds determined the company misclassified workers, allowing it to avoid paying overtime, health insurance and payroll taxes. The company was ordered to pay about 27 workers over $100,000 in unpaid wages.

The company was also cited four times by state regulators, which labor leaders say is a shocking number given how rarely labor violations are enforced overall.

In their letter, Senate Democrats also asked the Wilf family to work with the carpenters’ union, laborers’ union and the workers advocacy group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha to ensure wage theft is prevented on future projects.

Before construction began, the carpenters union and CTUL offered to provide free, third-party monitoring on the Viking Lakes job site and asked MV Ventures to enter into a legally binding agreement to resolve any labor disputes. The company declined, according to the carpenters’ union.

State has worked to curb wage theft

The state has taken steps aimed at cracking down on wage theft and other labor abuses, which are especially rampant in the construction and hospitality industries. Payroll fraud in the construction industry alone costs the state upwards of $136 million a year in lost tax revenue, according to one estimate by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute.

In 2019, a bipartisan group of lawmakers passed a bill making wage theft in excess of $1,000 a felony and directed an additional $3 million to DLI to hire seven more investigators.

Yet since that law passed, no employer has been charged with criminal wage theft due to a lack of investigatory power, according to prosecutors, labor leaders and lawmakers.

That will change with a new bill passed by the House and Senate this week that grants the Commerce Fraud Bureau new powers to investigate financial crimes, including wage theft. The bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, also gives the department an additional $800,000 to hire five more investigators.

About this story

This story was originally published by the Minnesota Reformer. The Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: [email protected]. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Minnesota Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.