Fleet Farm counters exploitation accusations

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2011 - 2:39 PM

The company vehemently denies charges by a laborers' union of exploitation at a construction site.

A controversy about construction workers at a future Mills Fleet Farm complex in the west metro has picked up steam, involving charges and countercharges between a union and the company and leafletting at several stores.

A local laborers' union claims that a contractor for the project is using temporary workers and paying them the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

"Fleet Farm should be ashamed that it's taking the cheapest and riskiest route possible to put up this outlet in Carver," said Tim Mackey, business manager for Twin Cities-based Local 563 of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

The future store, located along Hwy. 212 in the city of Carver, has received property tax subsidies, and the county commissioner who represents the area said he is irritated that more local workers have not been hired at higher wages.

"I know many county residents are unemployed with the skills that are needed for that construction, and some are losing their homes." said Commissioner Randy Maluchnik. "I consider Mills a good neighbor. ... I hope this is an oversight."

The company vehemently disagrees with the union and accuses it of spreading misinformation. All of the jobs are local, and contractors are paying substantially more than minimum wage, said Mills' co-owner Stewart Mills Jr. "There isn't anyone paying minimum wage," he said.

Construction began at the site in late June. The complex will include a retail outlet, a Mills Gas Mart and convenience store, and a Mills Car Wash on nearly 39 acres near Jonathan Carver Parkway and Hwy. 212.

Mills Properties Inc. of Brainerd is in charge of the project and has hired more than two dozen outside contractors, most of them with union crews.

Mackey said interviews with four laborers recruited from north Minneapolis and Richfield revealed that they were paid $7.25 an hour and received no safety training or benefits. All four did concrete work for Breitbach Construction Co., the project's concrete contractor, headquartered in Elrosa, about 50 miles west of St. Cloud. None of the four men now works on the project. Breitbach got the workers by hiring a national temp agency chain, Labor Ready of Tacoma, Wash., Mackey said.

"We'd like the exploitation of workers at that site to stop," he said.

Short-term jobs

Breitbach vice president Ryan Breitbach said that he used Labor Ready's local branch office in Richfield to hire four men, who worked a total of 163 hours between late August and Sept. 8, and no more than two men worked at any given time. Breitbach said that construction firms frequently need to hire a few workers for very short periods of time. Breitbach paid Labor Ready between $18 and $19 an hour for the workers they provided, he said, and thought that the men would be receiving most of that money.

After the laborers' union raised concerns, Breitbach said he looked into the matter and confirmed that Labor Ready had indeed only paid the workers minimum wage.

"We certainly don't feel that minimum wage is a fair or competitive rate," he said, and Breitbach has "completely discontinued" its relationship with Labor Ready.

Mackey said he's skeptical of that explanation. "We really don't know what's going on at that job right now, but everything we have found out is troubling," he said.

Leaflet campaign

The union has distributed leaflets alleging exploitation to shoppers at Mills Fleet Farm stores in Oakdale, Blaine and Brooklyn Park.

However, Bruce Buxton, project manager for Mills Properties at the Carver site, said that the union has "blown the whole thing out of proportion" and misrepresented the situation through press releases, leaflets and interviews.

"The [union's] inference is that everybody out there on the job is cheap, out-of-town labor -- or out-of-state labor, even. That's not true at all," Buxton said. Neither is it true that the job site is unsafe, or that the quality of the work is poor, he said.

Most of the two dozen contractors are union contractors, Buxton said, including those doing the steel, electrical, plumbing, bituminous and other work, and more than 100 union and nonunion workers on the job are working well together.

"There's nothing that's not being done right on that job," he said, and quality control is ensured by constant company oversight, daily city inspections and strict adherence to worker safety laws.

Buxton said the construction is between 40 and 50 percent complete, with the goal of opening the store in August 2012.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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