CHICAGO - A contractor for an Illinois construction company has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of forgery for defrauding Polish-speaking carpenters who worked on a project to soundproof homes against the noise of jets taking off at O'Hare International Airport here.
The guilty plea on March 19 by Mark Zwirecki, 45, a resident of this city, was announced recently by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Zwirecki was sentenced to 12 months probation and ordered by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Porter to pay $60,804 in restitution and a $10,333 fine.
Madigan's investigation showed Zwirecki payed the ten carpenters he hired far less then the legally mandated prevailing wage of $51.51 hourly, which they should have received under the terms of Chicago's contract with Classic Gutter, the company under whose auspices Zwirecki operated.
Most of the carpenters were Polish and most spoke little or no English. Zwirecki's ability to speak their language helped him devise and carry out a scheme to defraud the carpenters, according to the attorney general's investigation.
Beginning in December 2008 and continuing until May 2009 Zwirecki kept for himself much of the money Classic Gutter gave him for the purpose of paying the workers. He deposited the payroll checks he got from the company into his own bank account and then paid the workers at much lower rates with new checks drawn on his account.
The city developed the soundproofing program in response to continued complaints from residents near the airport about the roar of jets taking off and landing.
"The defendant went to great lengths to profit off of hard working men," Madigan said of Zwirecki. "My office is committed to enforcing our state's prevailing wage laws to ensure that contractors that don't follow the law at the expense of employees and taxpayers are held accountable."
Workers who are not in unions are frequently the victims of wage theft schemes similar to the one carried out by Zwirecki. Interfaith Worker Justice, which is based in this city, runs non-profit worker centers nationwide that are dedicated to combating the problem,
In Wage Theft in America, a recent book written by IWJ's Executive Director Kim Bobo, a similar case five years ago in Chicago is described. It involved six workers - one Polish, one Mongolian, one Mexican and three Hondurans - who sought help from IWJ after experiencing problems with their boss at Lopar Ltd., an electrical contractor.
"The six had been coached to tell everyone they were union members, which they were not," Bobo writes in the book. "All the other workers on the government funded job were getting paid the prevailing wage, $37.95 per hour. The six workers were paid $10 -$15 an hour. The employer, who was paid prevailing wage rates according to the contract with the government was stealing roughly $23- $28 an hour from each worker.
"Eventually, the contractor agreed to pay $21,000 in back wages, which the workers accepted. They actually were owed $80,000, but getting the full amount would have taken more time and court proceedings."
Bobo notes also in her book that "a chart in the book of federal records alone - not counting state cases - disclosed seven cases in 2005-2008 of employers not paying workers prevailing wages. The workers lost a total of $4.5 million."
The Zwirecki case was not the only one recently where a construction company was disovered ripping off its workers. In March the Hennepin County (Minneapolis) Attorney indicted a roads construction contractor for stealing $52,000 from 50 workers.