KAILUA-KONA >> They had just come off work. Dangerous work, trudging along with metal detectors, grid by tedious grid, over World War II weapons training sites. It’s hot work, out on the grassy lava fields of Waikoloa, no shade, only the water they can carry, no toilet facilities.
It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Unexploded ordnance that litters former military training sites on many Hawaiian islands is unstable, known to go off without warning. One such occurrence early this month sent two maintenance workers at Makua Military Reservation on Oahu to the hospital with serious injuries, West Hawaii Today reported Tuesday.
Eleven people have been killed or injured by old artillery rounds in the state since the 1940s.
Showing equal parts anger and fear, the group of seven, many still in their neon-bright worker shirts, huddled around an outside table at a Big Island Starbucks recently, wanting to share their stories but afraid of getting caught.
They’re being pushed to work ever harder, ever faster, as the contractor’s five-year, $100 million contract winds to a close, they said. They worry that faster work means more dangerous work, pushing through waist-high grass, trying to clear the football-field sized grids, 50 meters by 100 meters, on the 120,000-acre site to meet the schedule.
“We don’t know if the next step will be on a rock or a rocket,” one of the workers said.
The workers say the government contractor, Environet Inc., is treating them poorly. West Hawaii Today is withholding their names because, as at-will employees, they said they fear retaliation. The newspaper was contacted after they appealed to Raynard Torres, an unsuccessful 2010 County Council District 9 candidate, for help. Torres put them in touch with the newspaper.
The workers describe being lured with promises of high pay, extra hazard pay and a per diem allowance. Some left other jobs, stable, well-paying jobs, to join the program.
“They told us we’d make more money than we had ever seen,” another of the workers said.
Some had letters promising wages and per diem, only to be told after they were hired that there were errors in the contracts and they needed to be replaced with correct contracts. Those new contracts cut benefits, including the $165 per day per diem. They shared their 2009 letters and contracts with the newspaper.
“This was my first contract. I don’t know nothing,” said a worker. “I’m doing the same exact thing as them (other workers), but I’m not getting the full benefit.”
Vicki Gaynor, vice president of administration for Environet, expressed surprise that any workers had gripes.
“I’ve worked for this company for a long time and this person never came to us,” Gaynor said Monday. “It’s now 2015 and somebody is saying they’re cheated out of something?”
Gaynor said Environet is one of only two local contractors who have performed this type of work for the military in Hawaii. The other company, Dawson Environmental, a subsidiary of the Hawaiian Native Corp., held a similar contract for a short time.
One of the thrusts of Environet’s work has been to train and hire local workers for the UXO technician 1 positions, the lowest rank of three ranks of technicians. The pay started at $21.58 an hour plus hazard pay and a $1.64 an hour medical differential, plus $165 daily per diem, according to an offer of employment obtained by the newspaper.
Gaynor, however, said technician 1 positions were never paid per diem because those were considered “local hires,” and not traveling workers. Only the technician II and technician III positions held by out-of-state workers, many of them former military, qualified for per diem, she said.
“Most of the people that do this work are nomads,” she said.
It’s possible, Gaynor acknowledged, that some local hires were given the wrong letters bearing the offer of employment by a former Environet employee who has since left the company.
Environet had to gear up quickly in about 30 days after being notified of the contract award in 2009. The company had to train and hire workers, locate equipment, vehicles and facilities, all in a rush, she said. Mistakes could have been made.
Any safety concerns workers have can be raised every morning at the start of work, when a safety meeting is held, Gaynor said. The meeting is attended by an Army safety officer and an Environet safety officer who reports directly to the president of the company, she said. A spokesman for the government agreed.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts Quality Assurance oversight and inspections on a daily basis,” Dino W. Buchanan, command information manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers- Honolulu District, said in an email response Monday. “This QA oversight is done to ensure the contractor is doing the work properly in accordance with the contract requirements. QA oversight also includes checking work is done in a safe manner in accordance with the Contractor’s Work Plan.”
Buchanan said the contractor determines what conditions need to be established for workers to do a proper sweep, using the manufacturer’s instructions for the equipment and their experience to determine proper use of the equipment.
Gaynor said Environet shouldn’t be criticized, but it should be praised as a local company giving high-paying jobs to local workers, and saving taxpayers money in the process. Over the course of the past five years, Environet has saved taxpayers more than $6 million that would have been paid if all the work was done by mainland workers, she said.
“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” Gaynor said. “I think Environet has a very good story to tell about a local contractor hiring local workers. . Local people were trained how to do the work. These people are living on the Big Island and they are going to get the work, whether it’s for us, or the next contractor.”