Inside Story

‘Contract to Cheat’ shows how workers get treated unfairly

Heard about the growing “wage gap” and wondering how America got this way?

Check out our investigative series “Contract to Cheat” for a stunning example.

As this series illustrates, when it comes to getting a break, the American worker very often is last in line, and least likely to benefit.

The construction industry got a big break in 2009 as the nation faced a historic financial crisis. President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped $840 billion into communities across the country to reignite construction projects.

Developers and building contractors, starved for new work, competed fiercely for those projects. And when they cut corners to come up with winning bids, they often cheated their rank and file workers of wages and benefits.

This series explains how they also cheated you, the taxpayer. The taxes they avoided only added to the burden of all who do pay as law-abiding citizens.

That brings us to perhaps the most astounding revelation of all: In disbursing billions of dollars to put construction workers back on the job, the federal government failed to do its own job of ensuring that those workers received the compensation they are owed in this country.

Read the series yourself and ask: Who is looking out for the American worker?

The findings represent more than a year of reporting by The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer of Raleigh, six other McClatchy newspapers, the McClatchy Washington Bureau and ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in New York.

This investigative team filed for public records under the Freedom of Information Act in 28 states. Reporters also interviewed hundreds of workers, company owners, economists and policymakers.

In North Carolina, the records were particularly hard to get. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to block access at dozens of agencies across the state, saying it wanted to control release of the records. The Charlotte Observer joined The News & Observer in a lawsuit and, together, the two newspapers forced the release of records for 64 federally funded projects built between 2009 and 2013.

Those projects put a lot of people back to work in our state. But as you’ll read, these workers often failed to get fair treatment for an honest day’s work. In fact, North Carolina stands out as among the worst states in the nation for cheating workers of what they deserve.

Perhaps you are wondering the same about your job. Have you been told you must work as an independent contractor? We have a simple quiz you can take on See if your job more closely resembles that of an employee who could be eligible for additional protections and benefits.

This is a very in-depth report, touching on many states. For your convenience, we have posted all of it online. It will appear in print as a series that runs from Sunday through Thursday.

While some of you will read it all, we know that others will need to choose. If so, we recommend that you watch in particular for the stories reported closest to home, in North Carolina and the Charlotte region.

I also urge you to read the stories that explore practical solutions to the problems we found. You’ll see that in North Carolina, in particular, public officials are ignoring an initiative to get something done.

As you read, we invite your comments here. Agree? Disagree? Want to add your personal perspective? Let us hear from you.