The Social and Economic Costs of Illegal Misclassification, Wage Theft and Tax Fraud in Residential Construction in Massachusetts 

Drywall installers

From the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center, Tom Juravich, Russell Ormiston, Dale Belman studied the labor and employment practices in the residential construction industry in Massachusetts and found widespread misclassification of workers. Their executive summary states:

Based on our extensive interviews, we have identified a new and fully institutionalized business model operating in residential construction across the Commonwealth. Practices such as the illegal misclassification of workers as independent contractors, wage theft and tax fraud, and paying workers in cash that were once at the margins of the construction industry, are now at the center of medium and large residential construction in Massachusetts. We have identified four dimensions of this new business model:

  • The majority of builders in residential construction have almost completely jettisoned regularized employees in residential construction. However, upon closer inspection, the vast majority of these workers in non-union construction, under current law in the Commonwealth, should be classified as employees. The lack of regular employment in legitimate businesses creates the conditions for the hyper-exploitation of precarious and mostly undocumented workers.
  • This reliance on illegally misclassified workers has been greatly facilitated by the emergence of a new labor intermediary: labor brokers, who supply the vast majority of mostly undocumented workers for jobs in residential construction. Without corporate identities, they operate largely in the shadows and are nearly untraceable in that they pay their workers in cash and do not keep any records of employment. This cash-only world is a hothouse for wage theft, a central feature of this business model. For example, on a Beacon Communities project in Amherst, MA nine drywallers working for a labor broker received no payment for five six-day weeks averaging 10-hours a day and were owed collectively $50,713.
  • Workers in residential construction are pushed to work incredibly hard in precarious working conditions and as cash workers, are not covered by workers’ compensation and have no access to the social and economic benefits normally obtained through employers. Hanging drywall—already a dangerous occupation—has become intensely unsafe because of the primitive working conditions under which most of these workers toil. Workers are encouraged not to report on-the-job accidents and, if they are injured, neither labor brokers nor any other entity are held responsible; their medical costs often end up being paid for by the Commonwealth and its taxpayers.
  • These practices are not restricted to the margins of residential construction. Major developers and general contractors who allow wage theft and tax fraud on their construction projects are fully aware of these illegal, unethical, and predatory practices in the construction process, yet they choose to utilize them anyway and profit greatly. They sign contracts with contractors and sub-contractors knowing full well that they can only be completed at the contract price if workers are illegally misclassified, hyper-exploited to work in unsafe conditions, or have their wages regularly stolen from them.
  • These practices are likewise extraordinary harmful to legitimate contractors. Since a contractor can save up to 30% of costs by committing wage theft and tax fraud, legitimate contractors playing by the rules cannot effectively compete.

Audits of employer payrolls from 2017 through 2019 provided by the Department of Unemployment Assistance provide direct evidence of illegality in the industry. In addition, we utilize a well-established empirical approach of indirectly estimating the full extent of misclassification using data from the Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics. We found that:

  • Employer payroll audits conducted by the DUA between 2017 and 2109 indicate that more than one in six Massachusetts construction employers (16.8% to 17.9%) misclassify workers as independent contractors.
  • Our indirect method assessing the full extent of misclassification and off-the-books employment in the Commonwealth’s construction sector projects that there were between 22,146 and 36,719 workers affected by wage and tax fraud in 2019, accounting for 9.5% to 15.8% of the industry’s workforce.

Data from DUA and the Department of Revenue (DOR) indicate widespread misclassification of employees in residential construction and specifically in the finishing trades.

  • Employer audits conducted by the DUA reveal that misclassification is especially prevalent among building finishing contractors (e.g., drywall, finish carpentry, painting), with 26.6% of audited firms engaging in misclassification between 2017 and 2019.
  • Tax records on sole proprietorships from the DOR reflect alarming rates of contract labor usage in siding, framing, finish carpentry, painting, drywall, flooring and roofing. For example, framing contractors reported $189 in contract labor costs for every $100 of employee wages in 2019. In contrast, electrical contractors spent just $13 in contract labor for every $100 of wages.
  • DUA audits show that residential builders have some of the highest rates of misclassification in the industry. DOR data on sole proprietorships also reflect that residential builders have some of the highest rates of contract labor usage in the sector ($180 in contract labor for every $100 in wages in 2019).

Wage theft, tax fraud, cash payment and misclassification are central to this new business model in residential construction and have significant economic costs to both workers and taxpayers in Massachusetts.

  • We project that misclassification in the Massachusetts construction industry led to a $24.5 million to $40.6 million shortfall in the state’s unemployment insurance fund in 2019.
  • Contractors evaded between $37.0 million and $78.3 million in workers’ compensation insurance premiums and shortchanged workers by not paying between $19.3 million to $40.8 million in required overtime premiums in 2019.
  • Our interviews suggested that many employers did not carry a valid workers’ compensation insurance policy. This is confirmed by reports from the Department of Industrial Accidents that indicate that the construction industry accounted for 47.3% of Workers’ Compensation Trust Fund cases— a public fund that covers workers whose employers failed to purchase coverage—from 2016 to 2020 despite representing only 9.4% of claims made through the coverage of law-abiding employers.
  •  Because of companies’ failure to withhold state payroll taxes, we project that the Commonwealth lost between $6.7 million to $41.3 million in personal income taxes in 2019. Estimates of income tax losses were generated using very conservative assumptions and, especially at the low end, are likely to undercount the amount of income tax losses to the state.

Our baseline estimates suggest that worker misclassification and off-the-books employment allowed Massachusetts construction employers to reduce labor costs by at least $140.4 million in 2019. This likely undercounts the true social harm to workers and taxpayers. In addition to using conservative assumptions in building our models, our analysis is restricted to areas in which there is sufficient empirical data to defensibly quantify the issue. Given that data availability is limited when studying the underground economy, our total does not include statewide estimates of direct wage theft (explicit non-payment for work), business tax revenue shortfalls attributable to non-filing by labor brokers, medical costs on unreported workplace injuries, and a host of other direct and indirect effects that were reported in our interviews. As a result, the true social and economic costs of worker misclassification are likely an unknown multiple of the totals offered in this study.

Read the full executive summary and the full report at The Social and Economic Costs of Illegal Misclassification, Wage Theft and Tax Fraud in Residential Construction in Massachusetts | Labor Center | UMass Amherst

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