Connecticut construction jobs declined 6.6 percent this year and with the state facing a $3.67 billion budget shortfall labor unions and municipalities are again pitted against each other in the debate over the prevailing wage.
Labor unions and municipalities agree nothing has been done over the past 20 years to change the prevailing wage, which applies to all new government construction projects above $400,000 and renovations projects costing more than $100,000.
What they don’t agree on is how the law should be changed.
Charles LeConche of the CT Laborers’ District Council, which represents about 5,000 construction workers, said earlier this week that there’s a trend in state government to divide up big construction projects into smaller projects in order to avoid the prevailing wage law.
“We need to rectify the way the state operates,” LeConche said. “You get what you pay for.”
He said using unscrupulous contractors, who pay low wages or use undocumented workers, will only cause the state’s infrastructure to crumble faster.
But the Department of Transportation said all of its projects use the prevailing wage, which is monitored by the Department of Labor.
“It is safe to say that virtually every current DOT contract requires the prevailing wage,” Judd Everhart, spokesman for the DOT, said Wednesday.
But LeConche maintains that this year with Democrats holding all the constitutional offices and with friends of labor, such as Glenn Marshall as head of the Labor Department, it’s the perfect storm to get the state to start investing again in its infrastructure.
Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, who co-chairs the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said there are 25 pieces of legislation this year dealing specifically with the issue of the prevailing wage.
“You can’t ignore it,” Prague said Tuesday.
She said she’s a big supporter of the prevailing wage and doesn’t want to see the thresholds increased. She said already Connecticut’s prevailing wage threshold is higher than Rhode Island’s which is $1,000 and Maine’s which is $50,000. Click here to read a state-by-state comparison.
She said it costs the state more money to repair the shoddy work of contractors that don’t pay their workers appropriately.
But cities and towns are hurting financially and improvements to their infrastructure will continue to be delayed if the prevailing wage threshold isn’t increased, James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said Wednesday.
CCM is proposing increasing the prevailing wage threshold for new projects to $1 million and $500,000 for renovation and repair work.
“Studies have shown the capital budget would go 10 to 30 percent further if towns didn’t have to pay prevailing wage,” Finley said.
He said towns have adopted a “lowest responsible bidder” policy so there’s less of a likelihood that the work would be done improperly. He said by raising the threshold more work will get done and more workers would be back to work.
“Wouldn’t they want 30 percent more work?” Finley said.
But LeConche is concerned because about 71 percent of his members made on average about $35,000 last year. “No wonder people have to work two and three jobs in order to make a living,” he said.
He said often times the state and towns don’t care where the contractor comes from and there’s not enough people in the Labor Department checking to make sure the contractor classified the jobs appropriately. He said that was the problem with the University of Connecticut construction project, which used out-of-state labor and ended up having to hire more contractors to fix the mistakes of the first one.
“It was a disaster,” he said.
Prague, who is poised to agree with LeConche, said the Labor and Public Employees Committee has scheduled a public hearing next week to learn more about the prevailing wage. The hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8 in the Legislative Office Building.
“I don’t know what will happen, but we’ll have a conversation,“ Prague said.