PROUD SHIPBUILDING TRADITION
RUNS AFOUL OF THE LAW
Author(s): Donna Gold,
Globe Correspondent Date: June 21, 1998 Page: B6 Section: Metro
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine --
One morning earlier this month, David Corcoran was hand-casting some bronze hardware
needed for the 26-foot wooden sailboat he had been commissioned to build when
a knock came on his door.
" `Where is everybody?'
" Corcoran recalls the inspector from the Bureau of Labor Standards of Maine's
Department of Labor asking. " `We had a report that you had people working here
that you were not paying. Corcoran, 36, smiles grimly as he tells the story of
inspector Curtis Semones looking around his boatshop, as if expecting to find
illegal immigrants hiding among the wood shavings. There was no one working at
the time, but Corcoran did not hesitate to tell Semones that he has had people
work without pay.
Corcoran is proud that
four times in his nine years as owner of Bullhouse Boatworks, he has taken on
apprentices. Three of the four currently work in the industry.
"I love it," Corcoran says
of his craft. "On launching day, when you see your boat go down the ramp, it's
like looking at a work of art. To know you've built it with your own two hands,
it's so emotional. I want other people to have that feeling."
But because Corcoran has
yet to make over $20,000 a year building boats, he says he cannot pay his apprentices
even minimum wage. Which is why, after receiving an anonymous tip, the state labor
department came calling.
Royal Bouchard is the chief
inspector of the Bureau of Labor Standards' Wage and Hour Division. While he declined
to speak about any specific case, he did discuss the clause in the Fair Labor
Standards Act that Corcoran was told he was violating. It states, in part, "no
person, firm or corporation shall require or permit any person as a condition
of securing or retaining employment to work without monetary compensation." The
law, legal experts say, is intended to safeguard employees from a wide range of
employer expectations, such as taking a training course or working overtime without
pay. Bouchard says if there is "an employment relationship," payment must be made
-- even if the parties themselves have agreed that the relationship is something
It is illegal, Bouchard
added, to make a deal that circumvents the law.
Bouchard, however, acknowledged
that such informal arrangements go on all the time. Craftspeople agree. Scratch
the surface of many skilled trades, they say, and you will find informal relations
of all kinds. Bernie Vinzani, who makes paper by hand in eastern Maine, has seen
many kinds of arrangements with apprentices. Some pay to learn a trade; some barter;
some get paid. His apprentices, he says, are always paid.
"We feel people need to
earn a wage for work they do, even in training," says Vinzani. "If I owned a garage
and hired someone with a potential of being a master mechanic, I would not hire
him as an apprentice without pay."
But Potter Gerry Williams
of Goffstown, N.H., author of the 1981 book, "Apprenticeship in Craft," does not
see nonpayment as exploitation. To judge an apprenticeship, he offers the following
criteria: "If it can be shown that the master is giving complementary time in
terms of space, tools, education; if a master spends a certain number of hours
teaching the apprentice; if the environment allows tools to be used, then it seems
to me a non-exploitative environment."
Corcoran says he takes
on apprentices for the companionship, for the insight teaching offers, and because
as a 16-year-old in Manhasset, N.Y., a master cabinetmaker allowed him to apprentice
with her for two summers, launching his woodworking career.
Corcoran eventually moved
onto boats, and apprenticed, worked, and studied until he obtained the skills
to become a boat builder. He continues to his hone skills by working alongside
master craftspeople. And other professionals come to him to learn aspects of the
Kurt Hasselbalch, curator
of the Hart Nautical Collection at MIT, an archival source of boat plans, thought
he would learn to loft (a mathematical process of drawing full-sized, front, side,
and overhead projections of the boat) by visiting Corcoran. Now Hasselbalch isn't
sure it will be allowed.
"I think it's absolutely
preposterous that the law could cause. . . the traditional idea of apprenticeship,
which was nonpay, to not be practical," says Hasselbalch. "Dave is a highly skilled
boatbuilder and a really phenomenal teacher."
At Bullhouse Boatworks,
Corcoran builds reproduction daysailers from the plans of Nathanael G. Herreshoff,
founder of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co.
It is time-consuming work
and Corcoran is a perfectionist at every stage, beginning with handpicking trees
for the plankings. He does everything himself: lofting, handfashioning the hardware,
even making his own tools, none of which are electric.
Corcoran will only take
on an apprentice if the person can commit to the nine months it takes to build
a boat, so he or she can learn every stage.
Paul Waring, Corcoran's
last apprentice in 1996, was hired as a ship's carpenter at the highly respected
Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.
"The agreement with Dave
was great; my labor in exchange for his teaching," Waring says. "Everything was
right up front. It was like going to a free school."
But to remain within the
law, Corcoran now will have to pay whomever he instructs, which he says he cannot
afford to do. His other options include trying to change the current law through
legal manuevers, or incorporating as a nonprofit school.
"In the last resort I may
do that; but I don't like it," he said. "It allows me to skirt the law; but not
to assert the principle of my right to pass on the knowledge that I have.