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Booze-for-perks scheme alleged at Seattle tunnel site

Allegations of unprofessional and unsafe behavior by some workers on the Seattle tunnel project were reported to the Washington State Department of Transportation last month.
The entrance to the Seattle tunnel under construction on the south end of downtown, near the stadiums.

Allegations of unprofessional and unsafe behavior by some workers on the Seattle tunnel project were reported to the Washington State Department of Transportation last month.

The allegations were originally brought forth by an employee of the state's private contractor – Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), which has a $1.35 billion dollar contract with the state to design and build the tunnel. The employee, who has since quit the company, authored a four-page letter and sent it to WSDOT.

Worker letter alleges misconduct

The worker alleged that the environment created by the supervisors of a carpentry crew was hostile, discriminatory, and featured a quid pro quo system of needing to bring alcohol to the foreman in exchange for perks such as overtime, better shifts, and assistance with tasks at the job site.

"As I worked longer in the hole, I began to see how things worked. If anybody wanted extra hours or if sub-contractors wanted cooperation, they needed to bring…alcohol," wrote the worker.

In his letter, the worker said a supervisor and a handful of co-workers would occasionally report to work under the influence of alcohol.

"Another safety concern is employees working under the influence of alcohol. (The crew) would go to bars after work and drink until closing, take a cat nap then come to work early…They would show up to work drunk. This occasionally happened when they were working in the cut and cover but this behavior increased when they started working in the tunnel," he wrote in the letter.

KING investigation of allegations

KING 5 investigated the worker's claims by conducting lengthy and multiple interviews with seven other workers who were part of the same carpentry crew or who worked alongside them from other trades. The interviews were conducted independently with each worker, who all agreed to speak to KING on the condition of anonymity. They said they feared losing their job or being denied jobs in the construction field in the future if they spoke out on the record.

The seven other workers described having firsthand knowledge of similar inappropriate work site activities outlined in the four- page letter to WSDOT.

Four people told KING 5 they either brought bottles of alcohol, usually Grey Goose vodka, to a supervisor on the job site in exchange for extra hours, or they said they were encouraged to do so and declined. Another worker said he was offered Crown Royal whiskey by co-workers as a "thank you" for a job well done.

"Alcohol was being passed around for favors because you needed help on the job site," said one worker employed by an STP subcontractor. "If you want stuff done, you bring booze."

Another construction worker employed by STP detailed the process of how the bottles were exchanged. "I saw my co-worker bring bottles of Crown Royal in a grocery bag at least two times," he said. This worker said the bottles would be transferred from the supervisor's company car at the end of the shift into the supervisor's personal car.

"It's an 'I'll take care of you, you take care of me' atmosphere," said the current worker who witnessed the exchange of alcohol. "In 30 years in the trade, I've never seen anything like this…They (field managers) are on a power trip and like to bully."

"(My co-worker) got all the overtime and gravy work because he'd buy them gallons of alcohol," said a former employee. "I'm dumbfounded at the entire thing. I can't believe it....In 17 years in the business I've never seen such a hostile environment."

Four of the employees interviewed by KING 5 described seeing a foreman and a handful of coworkers intoxicated on the site.

"I saw them once or twice stumbling around," said one former employee. "I know when someone is drunk."

A current STP employee described seeing a foreman "out of it" on several occasions, but said the behavior had recently stopped. "You could totally tell. You could smell it, bloodshot eyes….he even bragged that he'd been up all night."

Top WSDOT officials involved

When the allegations first came to light, top officials from WSDOT got involved. Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson was concerned enough about the allegations made in the letter that she scheduled a meeting with the employee's union representatives, but later rescheduled and conducted the meeting by conference call.

Following the call, WSDOT's deputy secretary and chief operating officer, Cam Gilmour, wrote the union representative in a letter dated January 15 to say the department was taking the concerns seriously.

"As a result of the call (with Sec. Peterson) we have a better understanding of your concerns," said Gilmour. "We have taken prompt action on the allegations…by sending our own letter to representatives of (STP)." Gilmour also described the situation as an "urgent matter".

STP finds allegations "without merit"

On January 20, STP responded to WSDOT in a five-page letter authored by Chris Dixon, the top STP manager on the project. Dixon reported that the allegations of alcohol-for-perks were unfounded. He did not address the allegations of impairment on the job.

"STP finds that the allegations are either not supported by the evidence obtained through investigations or are related to long past undocumented alleged events involving employees who are no longer employed by STP," wrote Dixon. "STP is committed to a safe, harassment free, working environment. STP has an obligation to investigate complaints and take appropriate actions when necessary."

Seattle Tunnel Partners is a joint venture compromised by two international construction companies - Dragados USA and
Tutor Perini Corporation. They currently employ 283 people on the tunnel project. Workers we spoke with say that Tutor Perini employees, not Dragados USA workers, were the ones engaging in the the inappropriate behavior.

Sexual harassment alleged

The original employee complaint sent to WSDOT also brought up accusations of sexual harassment.

"I would also like to bring to your attention to sexual harassment (at work)," wrote the employee. He described women receiving requests for provocative photos from a supervisor via late-night texts.

Five employees interviewed by KING 5 said women were harassed in their work area. Two employees reported seeing pornography displayed in what is known as a "dry shack" where crew members take breaks and eat lunch. They said the offensive photos have since been removed.

Others said they had firsthand knowledge of the inappropriate texts. One person who said he saw texts from a foreman to a female worker described the contents: "Yes I saw them…..(they were like) 'send me a picture of me in your swimsuit baby girl.'"

One woman told KING she felt "uncomfortable" on the job site because a supervisor had "overstepped his boundaries (with requests via text)."

In his response to WSDOT, STP's Chris Dixon also denied the allegations of harassment. He characterized those allegations as "hearsay" and said they hadn't received any other complaints of this nature.

"In summary, (STP's investigation) has found no evidence supporting the allegations…and thus considers these allegations without merit and therefore closed," said Dixon.

STP investigators fail to interview key employees

KING 5 has found the contractor's investigation did not include interviewing the employee who wrote the detailed letter which prompted their inquiry. Nor did STP interview any of the workers who spoke to KING, even though each one had firsthand knowledge of the allegations.

"I was never contacted, nor were the people that were directly involved, were they contacted either," one employee said.

"No one called me about anything," said a current STP employee with detailed knowledge of the behavior.

STP reported to WSDOT that one allegation was found to be true -- a foreman was suspended for five days over his role in a hostile shouting match with another worker.

KING 5 reached out to two of the supervisors cited in the employee's letter. One declined to comment, while the other said "they're all liars" before abruptly hanging up.

WSDOT, meanwhile, said it can't tell STP how to manage the behavior of its workers but Gilmour outlined other options for the employee who wrote the letter.

"As WSDOT noted in previous discussions with you, the Union may want to approach the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Washington State Human Rights Commission to discuss these concerns," said Gilmour.

"Though WSDOT cannot comment on specific personnel issues regarding our staff or those working for contractors on WSDOT projects, we can state unequivocally that we are committed to a safe, harassment-free working environment. The safety and civil rights of all employees and contractors working on WSDOT projects cannot be compromised. STP reported to us that they follow the process outlined in the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for allegations that are covered by the agreement. It is WSDOT's expectation that this process will be followed by STP until an issue is resolved," wrote WSDOT Communications Director Lars Erickson in a statement provided to KING.

One employee told KING 5 he's not surprised by STP's conclusion.

"Somebody makes a complaint and they try to cover it up or blame the person complaining," he said.

After KING 5 asked an STP representative about the company's failure to interview the letter's author or other employees with knowledge of the alleged incidents, they sent the following statement:

"Seattle Tunnel Partners values all of our employees and works diligently to ensure that all of our employees and subcontractors have a safe and healthy work environment, free from discrimination or harassment of any type or form. STP has created a culture of open communication at, and between, all levels of STP to ensure that all employees are able to freely raise concerns and complaints to anyone they desire. STP takes all worker concerns and complaints very seriously and immediately investigates complaints when they are brought to STP's attention.

After learning of allegations filed by an STP employee with WSDOT in January, STP took immediate steps to investigate the allegations. STP conducted a thorough investigation and determined that the allegations were either unsubstantiated or had already been resolved prior to being filed with WSDOT. STP did not receive complaints from any other STP employee regarding these allegations," wrote Rachel Bomker, STP Public Information Specialist.

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