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Battle continues over JW Marriott wages

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As the new J.W. Marriott Hotel slowly rises from Downtown Austin, a battle over wages has brewed beneath the surface.

During last-minute negotiations in 2011, White Lodging, the developer behind the new hotel, agreed to pay prevailing wage in exchange for $3.8 million in fee waivers.

Prevailing wage is required by federal law for government projects.

"The law is set in place to protect workers from being paid a certain amount,” Greg Casar with the Workers Defense Project said.

Several hotel construction workers claim their hourly wages are lower than what developers promised.

A spokesperson for the project said in a statement earlier this month that "not only are we adhering to the agreement, we are exceeding the prevailing wage targets average by at least 15 percent.”

“You can't just average out those people you underpay with other people and be in compliance," Casar said.

But Richard Suttle, an attorney for White Lodging, says paying prevailing wage for each individual worker would make the $3.8 million in incentives worthless.

In a letter to Austin City Council, Suttle wrote "an initial analysis showed that the amount of the fee waivers would be exceeded by the additional cost of strictly applying the public sector prevailing wage policy to this private sector project."

Suttle added that workers on the project are earning 19 percent above prevailing wage on average—an amount which he says a former city employee agreed to.

Council members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison voted against the deal.

"The developer got caught breaking the rules,” Council Member Morrison said. “Now, they are lobbying the city to try to change those rules once they've been caught to their own financial benefit."

Suttle wants city leaders to rewrite the agreement to allow some workers to be paid less than prevailing wage.

"You can't say, 'Well, we broke the law sometimes, but other times we didn't. If you average it out, we are OK.' We think that is disingenuous," Casar said.

The current contract is clear that all fee waivers must be returned to the city if all requirements are not met by the developer. The total amount of the incentives is less than two percent of what White Lodging says it will cost to build the hotel.

The JW Marriott is expected to open in March 2015.

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