When Vice President Mike Pence was scouting locations for last week's Minnesota visit, he found a no-brainer in Lakeville’s Safety Signs.
The company’s been around since 1993, making road signs and traffic-control equipment for construction zones. Its customers include highway departments all over the state, and a handful of private contractors as well.
Owners Jay and Sue Blanchard report their business has been going gangbusters under the Trump administration—something Pence made sure to play up during his appearance.
“This is such a huge honor,” Jay told KSTP. He and Sue were told they’d been selected because they were “the American Dream,” active in the community, and “doing it right.”
But a lawsuit filed in 2016 and dug up by liberal Super PAC American Bridge tells a different story. That was the year Kurt Seipel, a Wisconsinite who’d worked at Safety Signs since 2013, accused the company of wage theft. Nine plaintiffs joined him.
Seipel’s job was to essentially coordinate roadside construction zones. He’d set up and take down barriers and signs, close lanes and divert drivers to alternative routes, mark pavement, or blast off old paint—usually with the help of heavy machinery.
His work also included a lot of “prevailing wage jobs” for the state. Under Minnesota law, when the state government is paying for part or all of a project, employers are required to pay wages “comparable to similar work in the area where the project is located.” The point is to prevent local wage standards from being undercut by low-bidding construction companies. There are rules about overtime and benefits too.
But, the complaint alleges, Safety Signs routinely found ways to pay Seipel and his colleagues less than what the law requires. Sometimes the company would mischaracterize Seipel’s role in a construction zone, calling him a “traffic control person” instead of acknowledging that he was also operating heavy equipment and marking the pavement—a job that tends to pay more.
Sometimes, the complaint says, the company would fail to give the workers benefits they were entitled to, or overlook overtime payments entirely—none of which is allowed on a prevailing wage job.
Seipel allegedly asked management about this. Safety Signs, according to the complaint, told him “not [to] worry about it.”
“When [Seipel] and his coworkers complained to their supervisors, the complaints were ignored.”
So the 10 employees hit Safety Signs with a lawsuit, asking for unpaid back wages and overtime, plus lawyer fees. The company maintained everything was proper. But it ended up settling nonetheless, paying the workers most of what they said they were owed, roughly $155,000. As part of the terms, it didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing.
Safety Signs didn’t respond to requests for comment. And, naturally, none of this was mentioned during Pence’s visit. In fact, most of his comments were about how well workers have been doing since 2016.
“Wages are rising all across America in the last two years, and they’re rising most rapidly for hardworking blue-collar Americans,” he said. “The forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more. The economy is working, working for working people.”