Painter Exposes Boss On Lead Paint Danger
When Mark Zakula refused work involving dangerous methods of removing toxic lead paint last August, his employer Jim Schluter simply brushed off his concerns.
Zakula thought it odd that non-union Schluter Painting's trailer, which normally would have been parked prominently as free advertising for the company, was instead parked behind the job site and covered to conceal the employer's name. Workers on the Gorham St. student housing project were also told not to wear company t-shirts, ostensibly because that might attract union organizers.
Fearing that he could personally be fined for not following proper procedures for lead paint abatement, Zakula offered to work elsewhere. But he still had concerns. A young female coworker didn't seem to know that going home to her 2-year-old covered in lead paint debris, could be a problem. Then, another young coworker developed an unusual and life-threatening blood clot that a nurse said could be the result of lead paint exposure.
Alarmed that the employer's cavalier practices might also expose others in or around that job site for years to come-- Zakula headed in the direction of Painters Local 802 for some advice.
"This guy's been in business for fifteen years, long enough to know better. There are rules you have to adhere to in order to stay in business," says the 49-year-old Zakula. "But these operators will do whatever they want, they don't care what the laws are, federal, state or local. He'll screw his workers and bends the rules just to pad his pocketbook."
After learning from Painters Local 802 that he had a right not to perform the work if he felt he was in "imminent danger", Zakula decided to ask the area OSHA office to investigate. Ultimately, Schluter Painting was cited for multiple and serious violations and accessed a $4,200 penalty--and Zakula found himself out of a job.
"This is so unfortunate, unnecessary, and sadly it's not so uncommon," says Painters Local 802 organizer Mike Carey. "Most non-union workers have no idea where to turn when something like this happens. Nine times out of ten, they don't do anything."
While Schluter will no longer provide him work, Zakula remains undaunted and plans to pursue future work as a union painter.
OSHA found that among other violations, Schluter Painting did not provide workers with respirators or protective clothing, have an appropriate compliance program as required for lead abatement projects, or collect samples to determine workers exposure. As often happens with OSHA penalties, Schluter contested the fine and it was reduced to a mere $1,680.
"It's sad that they'll expose not only the workers, but anyone else who comes near that property--maybe kids who will dig in the dirt--to the lead that's left behind," says Bill Moyer, Local 802's business manager. "Basically, Schluter's been let off the hook. As a cost of doing business, he just lost his profit on that one job."
Painters Local 802 knows all about Schluter, having tried various times to organize the company. "We've talked with him over the years about the benefits of the union, our ability to train his workers in things like lead paint certification," says Moyer. "He said he'd look into it and then, that he was just fine without it."
When Schluter decided he wouldn't come willingly, his employees got too scared to put up a fight for the union. Seeing Zakula left without work doesn't inspire confidence for others who might want to speak out, but need their jobs to support their families.
"If the company has the resources, they'll fight with all they have to ward off a union drive," says Carey. "If not, they'll simply go out of business and start up later under a different name. That's the advice they get from law firms like Melli, Walker.
The union still plans to file charges on Zakula's behalf to enforce protections under whistleblower laws --and get him into a union job with better working conditions.