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Saga of the screwed-over working stiffs is officially over

A 10-year-old paycheck for work done for the city has finally arrived.

After 10 years, their payment for work for the city of Philadelphia has finally arrived. (Helen Ubinas/Staff)
After 10 years, their payment for work for the city of Philadelphia has finally arrived. (Helen Ubinas/Staff)Read more / File Photograph

PEOPLE, IT'S OVER. Last week, fittingly on the day before Thanksgiving, a group of ex-cons who've waited nearly 10 years for a paycheck finally got it.

I don't mean a promise of a paycheck or a hearing that might, maybe, lead to a paycheck. (Sadly, I fell for all of those . . . ) I mean actual checks that turned into real money that paid for stuff like overdue rent and electric bills and turkeys and Christmas gifts that some workers said they wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise. Also, a trip to the local go-go bar, one guy joked. At least I think he was joking.

After waiting a few hours, and fearing that they'd be put off again, the guys lined up outside an office at the Municipal Services Building on Wednesday to collect checks that ranged from $200 to about $25,000. So far, the city has been able to locate only about half of the 60 or so workers. One worker I with suggested they look in the jails and cemeteries for some of the rest.

Imagine waiting 10 years for a paycheck. Yeah, me neither. But that's exactly what these guys did while they were ignored, dismissed and told to get a lawyer, because we all know how much extra cash guys who've just gotten out of prison have. Sorry, a little residual rage there.

If you haven't followed the Saga of the Screwed-Over Working Stiffs, it's a complicated mess that dates back to 2003 and the administration of then-Mayor John Street. But it also highlights timelier issues about prevailing wage laws, politically connected city contractors and the city's commitment to ex-offenders.

"This is a larger problem than just the prevailing wage," said Mark Zecca, a former city lawyer who went after the contractor for not paying the workers a prevailing wage. "What happened here shows that the city needs to organize its contract-administration rules better and its compliance systems. It is too easy to look the other way and let the bureaucracy just flounder along."

And, boy, did it ever flounder. In 2003, Garnett Littlepage put some of the ex-offenders to work on multiple multimillion-dollar city contracts - including demolition and stucco work under the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, Street's anti-blight program.

Not long after, the city's Labor Standards Unit cited Littlepage for not paying workers a prevailing wage, not providing health insurance and filing bogus payroll reports.

Littlepage, who argued that his company was exempt because the workers were trainees, appealed and lost. But the guys didn't get paid, while Littlepage continued to get city contracts. By the time I got involved in April, one of the workers, Vearn Hart, was headed to Michigan in a U-Haul packed with all of his belongings.

"I've had it," he told me then. "You try to do the right thing and this is how this city repays you."

Councilmen Jim Kenney and Mark Squilla later held a hearing on the workers' behalf, during which the city surprised everyone by announcing that, whoopsie, it had the money to pay them all along. But instead of a paycheck, the workers got to sit through 24 hours of a soul-sucking appeals that one guy joked was worse than time in the hole.

On Nov. 7, the Board of Labor Standards finally voted to pay the workers, with interest. The guys cheered. They hugged senior Law Department attorney Michelle Flamer. But they still needed those checks.

As the workers lined up on Wednesday, one offered the others a little financial advice.

"Save some for a rainy day," he said.

"It's been raining, bro," answered another.

Hart, who had driven through the night from Michigan, where he works for Ford, left as soon as he got his check. He had plans to put a down payment on a house he'd been eyeing since he left town.

"I'm starting fresh," he said.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel