Every few months for nearly four years, Katharine Woomer-Deters had lugged a box full of records three blocks from her office to the Wake County courthouse. Inside it: all the proof and power she should have needed to force a Raleigh contractor to pay wages he owed to seven workers for labor in 2010.
Woomer-Deters and her employer, the N.C. Justice Center, have devoted tens of thousands of dollars worth of time and energy trying to get Robert Charleton Miller, owner of Raleigh construction company NC Contracting Inc., to pay the $14,000 he owed.
Finally, on Thursday, Woomer-Deters got what she needed: a payment from Miller. He signed an agreement to pay monthly until his debt is settled. He made his first installment Thursday.
It took the threat of jail and a stern judge to push Miller toward the settlement.
Miller has a long track record of recruiting immigrant laborers to frame, hang drywall and paint apartment complexes across the state.
The News & Observer highlighted Miller and NC Contracting’s practices in two stories in early October. The N&O has reported extensively on companies that exploit workers and undercut honest businesses by treating workers who should be employees as contractors.
The newspaper’s five-part investigation, “Contract to Cheat,” found that North Carolina is losing $467 million in annual tax revenue from the practice within the construction industry alone.
At least 15 times since 2002, federal and state regulators have examined complaints from dozens of workers Miller hired who said they were deprived of days’ or weeks’ worth of wages.
At every turn, Miller had avoided all consequences. He has paid no fines and faced no criminal charges. Though two federal labor investigators found Miller continued a pattern of “illegal nonpayment” and should be shut out of federal work, he has never been banned.
Most scofflaws avoid detection, the N&O’s investigation found. Even when they do come onto the radar of regulators, as Miller has, they can escape with impunity. And in the courts, employers such as Miller find significant latitude.
At least seven times, Miller didn’t bother showing up to scheduled court appointments. Miller said he lost the current wage case against him because he missed the hearing date to argue his side.
Earlier this week, he missed two court appearances. His absence so enraged Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning that Manning called him “elusive” and his behavior “irresponsible.” On Monday, Manning threatened to send a sheriff to arrest him.
For more than a year, a Wake County deputy has been trying to find and seize any asset of Miller’s that could be auctioned to recoup some of the $14,000 owed the workers. Miller insisted he was broke.
Miller denies wrongdoing
On Thursday, Miller was given another chance.
He came to court to work through a settlement agreement with his attorney and Woomer-Deters. Manning approved the agreement.
Miller built a construction business in 1999. He considered none of his workers employees, though federal regulators twice warned him that by law, these hourly laborers couldn’t be treated as contractors. In an interview in October, Miller said having employees would “complicate things” and drive up his prices.
Miller said by phone Thursday that he had no choice but to settle the case. He said that Woomer-Deters has “made his life miserable.”
Miller said workers on his construction jobs never worked for him directly. He said he believed that he had properly followed labor laws.
“I spent my life building this company, and I did not do anything wrong,” Miller said.