Fight in Tech's Trenches
Day Laborers for a Verizon Subcontractor Say They Were
By Elissa Silverman, Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Nerbin Rodriguez spent
weeks digging ditches near Chantilly last summer for the
benefit of Verizon Communications, Inc., part of the
estimated $20 billion fiber-optic cable system the company
is building to bring its next-generation phone, television
and Internet service to American homes.
All that shoveling by hand cost him $2,000 in unpaid wages,
Rodriguez now alleges. Yet he and 22 other ditch-digging
colleagues who sometimes seek work at a Fairfax County
day-laborer site can't look to the telecommunications giant
for their money. They must try to get it from a
subcontractor three layers removed that hired Rodriguez for
$100 a day with no contract or paperwork.
Chain of Command
Verizon has three prime
contractors in Virginia. In 2005, 95 subcontractors were
working on its new fiber-optic system. Those subcontractors
work with ditch-digging crews, which sometimes include day
laborers. One example:
S&N Communications of Kernersville, N.C., as its prime
subcontracts to KCS Communications of Fairfax County.
Anthony Maxwell of Hagerstown.
recruits Nerbin Rodriguez and his colleagues to dig ditches.
The situation casts light on the low-tech backbone of a
high-tech project -- the casual laborers who are rounded up
by subcontractors, sometimes bused across state borders to
job sites and set to work digging ditches. Predominantly
Hispanic, they work with few guarantees and often no
benefits, and they typically are hesitant to come forward
with problems, according to lawyers and advocacy groups.
In the case of Rodriguez and his colleagues, they were
recruited by Hagerstown contractor Anthony Maxwell, who in
turn had been hired by Fairfax County-based KCS
Communications Inc. KCS had been hired by S&N
Communications Inc. of Kernersville, N.C., which had been
hired by Verizon to oversee the installation of fiber-optic
cable in parts of Northern Virginia.
The group is now suing Maxwell in federal court for more
"We had worked so hard, and we have so little to show for
it," Rodriguez said recently, speaking in Spanish through a
Theirs is the second such case to be brought in the past
year involving Northern Virginia day laborers doing
cable-installation work. Last May, a Prince William County
court ordered a Virginia Beach subcontractor to pay Leoncio
Vite $1,138 for 110 hours of unpaid work involving
fiber-optic cable installation.
Laura Stack, the lawyer representing Rodriguez and the
others, said her Virginia-based legal aid organization is
looking into two other sets of allegations involving two
different cable subcontractors.
Maxwell, in an interview at his Hagerstown home, said the
workers have received much of their money. At most they
were owed about $3,000 total, he said, because KCS
Communications was behind on payments to him. KCS officials
did not respond to calls for comment after confirming that
Maxwell had worked with their company until last summer.
"I certainly feel badly" if workers weren't paid, said
Verizon senior vice president for network services Chris
Creager, but "the responsibility lies directly with the
person they are working for."
S&N Communications president and chief executive Allen
Powell agreed, saying he might be "willing to help" once he
had all the details.
"That's absolutely not supposed to happen," said Powell, who
noted that he began as a ditch digger for cable in
Mississippi and Louisiana. "Going and picking up people and
not making them an employee is a definite no-no."
On a recent afternoon, in 48-degree weather, Verizon local
manager Scott Tolliver oversaw the work of a ditch-digging
crew in Chantilly, one of 300 locations that Verizon and
cable competitor Cox Communications reported as potentially
active construction sites that day in Fairfax County. The
county and several other Northern Virginia communities have
been among the first in the nation to authorize Verizon to
sell cable television service, and the area has been a hot
spot of construction as the company pursues its effort to
bring fiber-optic line to the home of every customer.
While fiber-optic cable is futuristic in its engineering,
its installation is still a labor-intensive undertaking.
Laborers dig six-foot-long, 30-inch-deep ditches about 20
feet apart, bore through the ground between them with a
machine, then lay pipe through the hole.
Tolliver roamed the site as the crew of ditch diggers worked
in fluorescent green safety vests, distinct from the orange
vests worn by the supervisors. The green-vested workers
speak little or no English: To aid communication, they are
typically provided with business cards from the main
contracting company to present if a homeowner or someone
else asks what they are doing, Tolliver explained.
A few days later, another subcontractor at a nearby Verizon
site was overseeing a crew of a dozen Spanish-speaking
workers he said he had brought with him from Georgia and was
housing in a local motel.
"They do the stuff that no one else wants to do," said the
subcontractor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because
of the sensitivity of the issue.
One worker, who spoke in Spanish during his lunch break at
the Chantilly site to a Washington Post reporter, said he
and his colleagues have always been paid on time.
The use of outside construction firms is common among
companies like Verizon and Cox, a way to control costs as
they try to bolster their voice, video and Internet services
while competing for price-sensitive consumers. In Northern
Virginia they often draw on the same pool of contractors.
KCS, for example, has worked for both firms.
Verizon executives say that while 85 percent of the overall
work on their new Fios fiber-optic system is done by Verizon
employees, virtually all of the cable construction is farmed
"We are not a construction company," Creager said.
But the company said it vets and polices contractors
carefully. According to company spokesman Harry J.
Mitchell, 23 out of 95 subcontractors were dismissed in
Virginia last year for breaking rules, such as not reporting
if they had cut other utility lines or violated other
safe-digging laws. In an e-mail this week, he said the
company also met recently with its prime contractors to
"reinforce the expectation" that subcontractors would pay
employees on time, not pay them in cash and deduct
Lawyers and advocates for day laborers say the dispute with
Maxwell strikes some commonly heard themes, from confusion
over how the workers were to be paid and accusations of
shoddy work to a sudden demand for immigration papers.
While knowingly hiring undocumented workers is against the
law, those who do so are still obligated to pay them for
work performed. The rules, however, are loosely policed --
a fact that has created a rallying point for groups decrying
the impact of illegal immigration. In Herndon, for example,
members of the Minutemen group have photographed contractors
hiring workers at a day-laborer gathering site in the
western Fairfax County community.
Rodriguez, under the advisement of the attorney representing
him and the other workers in the lawsuit, declined to answer
questions regarding immigration status.
As the work began, Maxwell's grandfather, who lives in
Rockville, would pick up the workers each morning in the
Culmore area of Fairfax County, take them to job sites
around South Riding and Chantilly, and bring them back at
night. Maxwell said he had asked the workers up front
whether they were experienced in cable installation, which
they all affirmed. Some did a better job than others, he
There were problems from the start, according to the
Maxwell often wanted to give them personal checks, which the
workers contend would not be accepted at their local
check-cashing service. Few have bank accounts.
Sometimes there was no pay at all, the workers allege. When
Maxwell promised the money would flow more freely if they
joined him at a new job working for another Verizon
contractor near Pittsburgh, many of the workers agreed,
hoping to recoup what they were owed.
Little work or money materialized. After arriving there,
the workers said, Maxwell for the first time asked to see
legal identification, such as a Social Security card, and
said they could not do the work without proper
At that point, "we decided to leave," said Elder Mejia, one
of the workers named in the complaint, speaking in Spanish
to a reporter.
Mejia said the group took Maxwell's van and returned to
Virginia. Angry over the situation, they debated keeping
the vehicle to offset the wages they were due, though they
eventually decided to return it.
Maxwell contends that the problems stem largely from the
fact that the workers "lied to me" about their documentation
and could not produce it when asked. Maxwell said the job
was a financial loss for him, given the expense of housing
the workers while they were in Pennsylvania.
Despite the troubles getting paid, Rodriguez said he is
still willing to take work digging ditches for cable
"We work out of need," Rodriguez said through a translator.
"We need to send money home to our families, and we need to
Staff writer Krissah
Williams and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to