Union Leader Correspondent
Published Feb 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm (Updated Feb 1, 2012)

University of New Hampshire student Ella Yenigun, 19, was one of about 70 people who gathered on Wednesday to protest alleged labor violations at the Cottages of Durham residential construction project by Capstone Development Corporation/Cottage Builders, the Alabama-based developer of the project. The protesters allege that at least eight immigrant workers are owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for their labor over the past several months.

DURHAM — Capstone Development Corp. said it is investigating reports that at least eight workers on a major residential construction project in town are owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and overtime.

Capstone and its subsidiary, Cottage Builders, are the lead contractors on the $30 million to $40 million Cottages of Durham project on Technology Drive, which has been under construction since June.

Maggie Fogarty of the American Friends Service Committee said two weeks ago the group was contacted by eight workers on the project who say they worked for months without being paid. She said the employees worked long hours and overtime, including Christmas Day.

Fogarty said when the employees complained about not being paid, they were fired and lost their housing, which came with the job.

She said the employees are immigrants, but was not sure if they are in the country legally. She said that does not matter, as labor law applies to them whether they are documented or not.

On Wednesday, a group of about 70 pastors and faith community members, labor supporters, students and others gathered at Durham Community Church and marched to the Cottages downtown office to express outrage.

“Our demand today is that Cottage Builders and Keystone promptly pay these workers what they are owed in wages and overtime,” Fogarty said.

They also handed a letter to John Acken, senior vice president of Capstone, demanding that the workers be paid immediately.

Acken accepted the letter and briefly addressed the crowd, stating that Capstone shares the protesters concerns and is investigating the allegations.

The attorney representing the workers, Lawrence Vogelman of the Manchester firm Nixon, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky & Simoneau, issued a statement on Wednesday stating that they are exploring all legal and administrative avenues open to them, both state and federal.

“That being said, we are willing to sit down with Capstone/Cottages and their lawyers and reach a resolution compensating the workers for the work they have done and the damages they have suffered,” Vogelman said.

John Vawter, president of Cottage Builders, spoke with the New Hampshire Union Leader from Alabama following the protest and said he received additional information on Wednesday afternoon that got the investigation started. Prior to that, he said the firm had received one letter last week regarding the allegations.

He said 12 main subcontractors are working on the Durham site and most of them are based in New England. He said if any of them is found to have not paid workers, it will be required to do so.

“If there are workers who performed work and it was satisfactory and were simply not paid, then we will fully expect our subcontractors to pay their workers,” Vawter said.

He said he hopes the situation will have a resolution by Monday, at the latest.

He said the facts of the case will determine whether there will be penalties against any subcontractor who has not paid workers.

Cottages of Durham is being billed as luxury single units providing “resort living.” The development will be comprised of 141 units with 619 beds, a clubhouse and many specialty amenities such as a pool, tanning service and fitness center. Vawter said construction is scheduled for completion by July 31.

Fogarty said it is the responsibility of Capstone as the overall developer to make sure labor laws are followed and workers are treated fairly.

Town Administrator Todd Selig said Durham has actively enforced state and local regulations at the construction site, but has no control over internal operations or labor practices.

“At the same time, Durham does not and cannot condone unfair, unethical, unjust or illegal workplace practices,” Selig said. “Because Capstone project is within our community, we take any concerns expressed very seriously.”

Durham subcontractors eyed on immigrants' back pay issue | New Hampshire NEWS02