Opinion: Wage discrimination in construction industry makes minimum standards a good idea

By HILDA L. SOLIS
PUBLISHED: August 30, 2017 at 11:49 am
UPDATED: August 30, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Equal pay for equal work remains elusive, even here in progressive California.

A recent study by Smart Cities Prevail showed that Latinos make up two thirds of the construction workforce, yet only make about 70 cents on the dollar of white workers with the same skills. The study noted that Latino construction workers also are significantly more likely to be uninsured and to struggle with housing affordability.
Low minimum wage standards are one factor that contributes to these types of disparities.

California legislators are soon expected to consider streamlining development of more housing across our state. At its core, the proposal involves removing certain regulatory hurdles in exchange for guarantees that a small percentage of new developments will include “affordable” units.

A similar effort failed last year when no agreement was reached on wage standards for workers on streamlined projects.

According to industry research, workers’ wages and benefits are just 15 percent of the total cost of constructing housing. By comparison, profits for developers and contractors are 18 percent of costs and growing faster than the cost of labor.

And with labor standards being eroded, other problems have become more pervasive.

For example, wage theft occurs when employees are paid for fewer hours than they worked, less than legally required, or when their employer is paying in cash and cheating on payroll taxes. California’s construction industry has seen a 400 percent increase in wage theft since the 1970s-a period that has also seen a dramatic increase in the share of immigrants in our construction workforce.

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NYC invests $10M to boost minority, women participation in construction

Kim Slowey
June 22, 2017

Dive Brief:

  • New York City has created a $10 million fund to assist women- and minority-owned businesses win construction projects, according to Crain’s New York Business.
  • The money will go toward paying for up to $500,000 of surety bonds per contract. City contractors are required to furnish the bonds, which guarantee they will satisfactorily perform work and pay their bills, but they are difficult to obtain for smaller companies without a track record of completed projects.
  • Aside from helping women- and minority-owned firms become successful, New York City building officials said the program will help other contractors who are required to hire a certain percentage of these firms but can’t find enough of them to meet their mandated quotas.

Dive Insight:

The city aims to issue $16 billion worth of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses by 2025, and the bond assistance program should help it meet that goal.
Considering that federal and state governments spend hundreds of billions on public construction work and typically set aside 5% to 10% for MBEs and WBEs, the potential payoff is substantial. However, many contractors have reported difficulty finding enough qualified firms.

Workers cheated as federal contractors prosper

A Center analysis found that government agencies paid $18 billion over an 18-month period to companies with wage violations

By Talia Buford, Maryam Jameel
April 6, 2017 4:54

“I knew it was a federal building, but since everyone else was paying low wages, too, I just figured that’s how it was supposed to be,” Quezada, 40, said in a recent interview at her home in Arlington, Virginia.

Actually, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. But each year, thousands of contractors enriched by tax dollars skirt federal labor laws and shortchange workers. In fact, U.S. Department of Labor data show that upwards of 70 percent of all cases lodged against federal contractors and investigated by the department since 2012 yielded substantive violations.

But many of these violators go on to receive more federal contracts. An Obama administration effort to change that practice was derailed in late March by President Donald Trump.

The Center for Public Integrity examined a subset of 1,154 egregious violators – those with the biggest fines, highest number of violations or most employees impacted – included in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division enforcement database and cross-referenced them with more than 300,000 contract records from the Treasury Department. The Center found that between January 2015 and July 2016:

  • Federal agencies modified or granted contracts worth a total of $18 billion to 68 contractors with proven wage violations. Among them: health-care provider Sterling Medical Associates, Cornell University and Corrections Corporation of America
  • Of all agencies, the U.S. Department of Defense employed the most wage violators – 49, which collectively owed $4.7 million in back pay to almost 6,200 workers. The department paid those 49 contractors a combined $15 billion.
  • Violations by the 68 contractors affected some 11,000 workers around the country – about the same number of people who moved to D.C. in 2016.

 

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