BDN was tipped off last month to a demonstration at a job site in San Diego against Modo Building Systems. The tip was from a neighbor of the job site who stated that an orderly demonstration was taking place, but the claims against Modo should be investigated. We arrived at the scene during day two of a planned four-day demonstration to find more than 50 individuals picketing against the Canadian contractor. They marched around the site while a slate of workers and their advocates spoke in front of a 42-unit mixed use project at 800 Broadway in downtown San Diego. This is a high-rise apartment building by developer CA Ventures with General Contractor, Catalyst Construction, and subcontractor Modo Building Systems.
The demonstrators allege that Modo Building Systems, who is contracted to perform the metal stud framing and drywall, uses labor brokers to hire out of state workers from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. These workers are shuffled from job site to job site, are allegedly exploited through cash pay and are provided with no protections and/or benefits. It is also alleged that the workers are verbally abused and that this job site is exceptionally toxic.
Union investigators are confident that these demonstrations will bring Modo’s issues to the public’s attention and wonder whether they will affect Modo’s standard of performance.
BDN spoke to one of the special representatives demonstrating at the site, Jesse Garcia of Southwest Carpenters, and he stressed that Modo Building Systems (or Modo Drywall) is the latest incarnation of a company that has a long history of changing its name to hide its toxic past. “Modo has previously operated as Lakeview and Lakewood Building systems,” says Mr. Garcia. “They've been on the radar of California DIR (Dept. of Industrial Relations). For years, once it got too hot for them (Modo), they change their name and pickup right where they left off; practicing the same (alleged) underhanded ways.”
A search of the Supreme Court of California database revealed that between 2007 and 2009, Lakeview Building systems was subject to seven civil judgements. All the Lakeview judgements stemmed from work that they performed for Canadian developer Pinnacle International. BDN has previously reported on Pinnacle’s alleged use of cash pay and wage fraud. And in 2008, as Lakewood Building Systems, they were contracted to build on a project at University of California San Diego. At UCSD, they were hit with over $300k in fines for prevailing wage violations- after which they became Modo.
Garcia alleges that Modo is up to their old habits and that in 2020, on a Modo job site at 1388 Kettner Blvd in San Diego, they found evidence of cash pay amongst the out-of-town crew. According to Garcia, some of the workers agreed to be interviewed. However, once management caught wind of an investigation, that crew was promptly removed, relocated and disappeared.
According to Garcia, investigators approached the workers at their hotel and took a report. But before they could get additional information and involve authorities, management found out and the crew vanished. He says they operate like “ghosts” and Modo uses labor brokers to move them from one site to another. Garcia was surprised to learn from a counterpart in Denver that the same crew allegedly resurfaced in Colorado. “The same guys were brought on to work at the Black Hawk Casino in Colorado. Again, they were there for a month or so, union invest in Colorado began interviewing them, and as is Modo's m.o., the the crew was gone the next day. Modo uses the same Labor broker on their projects across the Southwest,” said Garcia.
On the 800 Broadway site, the demonstrators contend that superintendent, Tim Ross is abusive towards the Latino and African American workers on the project. The protest targeted this San Diego job site, not just because it was a Modo project, but because the superintendent on the job is Ross. According to protestors, Ross's treatment of workers at 800 Broadway further demonstrates the company’s overall inhumane treatment of their workers.
The allegations at the San Diego site, if true, are egregious, “We talked to workers on the site who were afraid to lose their jobs but what they told us off the record was shocking,” Garcia said. “Ross regularly threatens workers and calls them names. He dehumanizes them.” A quick search on job boards and worker reviews paint an unflattering picture. Specifically, two of the reviews pertaining to Modo’s San Diego job sites lend credence to the allegations:
“Worst Company I worked for. The Management, especially Tim Ross, is racist, and they discriminate against Mexicans and Blacks all the time calling everyone monkeys and worse. Everyone that came in worked for a few weeks and then left to a better company. No stable manpower whatsoever! That's why they always bring in guys from Texas or Canada,” posted Jesus, who claimed to be a former worker.
Another alleged former worker, Carlos Rodriguez, responded. “Yeah, I worked here too, not long because Tim would call the guys worthless monkeys, monkeys with tools and other things. I don't feel comfortable saying that's why I left. People should not be treated that way. Never will be back here and don't recommend to anyone let alone how are they even in business.”
According to Garcia, union members will set up a banner and distribute flyers as they await the outcome of the rallies. Garcia stressed that the four days of action are just a start and union representatives are hopeful that they can force Modo’s hand with continued protesting.
The demonstrations have certainly gotten attention in the community. Garcia pledges that they will not stop the labor dispute until Modo Building Systems makes the proper corrections or goes somewhere else to mistreat and cheat their workers.