One key to affordable housing crisis? Pay construction workers a living wage.

BY KEVIN DUNCAN
Special to The Bee
AUGUST 21, 2017 1:00 PM

WASHINGTON

No amount of project streamlining can solve California’s housing affordability problem by itself.

To lower prices, California needs to build a lot more housing. But to do that, it needs enough workers with the skills to do so safely and correctly. Prevailing wage standards, which function as a local minimum wage for skilled construction work, can help address these critical needs and improve the industry’s competitiveness in increasingly tight labor markets.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the number of builders reporting “some or serious” labor shortages grew from 21 percent in 2012 to 56 percent in 2016. More workers are choosing not to work in construction because it is no longer the gateway to the middle class.

A recent study by Smart Cities Prevail showed that inflation-adjusted wages for California’s blue-collar construction workers have declined 25 percent since 1990. In some communities, more than half of these workers must rely on housing subsidies, and nearly 40 percent don’t have health insurance. The study also reveals that what were once middle-class incomes are being redistributed into the pockets of developers and builders, whose profits have grown 50 percent faster than either labor or material costs since 1992.

Sadly, there are even more disturbing racial disparities. According to a UCLA analysis, the share of immigrants in California’s construction workforce has grown from 13 percent to 43 percent since 1980. On average, Latinos are being paid just 68 cents for every $1 of their white counterparts. These trends have tracked a growing pattern of illegal wage theft by unscrupulous contractors. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric makes it less likely that workers will speak out against employers who cheat.

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Bipartisan coalition beats GOP attempt to weaken Davis-Bacon wage protections

July 26, 20171:33 PM CDT BY PAI

WASHINGTON)-By a 183-242 vote, the GOP-run U.S. House defeated the latest Republican assault on the Davis-Bacon Act and its legal prevailing wages for construction workers who toil on federally funded projects. Fifty-one Republicans joined all voting Democrats in backing Davis-Bacon. The other 183 Republicans voted to cut workers’ wages.

And in an indication that even Davis-Bacon foes realize their fight is uphill, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Az., tried to weaken Davis-Bacon – by lowering the wage base – rather than kill it altogether. But nobody was fooled.

Gosar’s amendment to weaken Davis-Bacon “would hurt the local economy, devalue workers’ pay, and take a very important tool out of the toolbox for Republicans, Democrats, and Americans,” said Rep. David Norcross, D-N.J., an Electrical Worker and former Building Trades Council president in southern New Jersey. He led the debate against Gosar’s move.

“The prevailing wage is based on surveys of local wages and benefits, not whether there is a union or not,” Norcross added. “It keeps the community vibrant, and it takes into account those things that happened” there. ” So when you hear the term ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” this is a classic example.”

Besides, “This is about cutting wages in your local community.” He asked colleagues “Why would you ever want to go back and say, ‘I want to hurt the people I represent?'”

The 86-year-old Davis-Bacon Act mandates that locally prevailing wages, determined by the Labor Department, go to construction workers – union and non-union – toiling on federally funded projects such as highways, bridges, airports and subway systems.

For years, construction unions have successfully defended Davis-Bacon against assaults by the anti-worker anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors and its congressional Republican allies, even though two House Republicans pushed Davis-Bacon through in 1931. That scenario occurred again on July 14 during debate on the defense bill.

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Prevailing wage, project labor agreements protect living standards for construction workers

By ROBBIE HUNTER
July 6, 2017 at 12:01 am

In an era of political hyperventilation, it might be a good idea for some critics to take a deep breath before they launch into their attacks on the prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements that protect the living standards of construction workers in California and across the nation.

From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, anti-union writers in recent weeks have incorrectly branded the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act that wrote the prevailing wage into the law on taxpayer-funded construction projects as born of racism and a rip-off of public funds. The same critics also have falsely characterized project labor agreements as costly to taxpayers and unfair to nonunion construction companies.

Now, for the facts.

Two Republican congressmen, Sen. James Davis of Pennsylvania and U.S. Rep. Roger Bacon of New York, sponsored their legislation 86 years ago to establish a minimum wage on taxpayer-funded construction projects, based on local measures of central tendency in any of the covered construction trades.

The idea behind the prevailing wage is to keep unscrupulous operators from low-bidding the legitimate competition to the detriment of the local workforce. The effect has been to allow blue-collar workers – 400,000 of whom are represented by the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California – to maintain their place in the American middle class.

Of the false charges that have been lodged of late about Davis-Bacon, perhaps the most repugnant is the smear that recirculates every so often that the act originated as an outgrowth of racism. The critics troll through the historic record to quote some congressmen in the debate over Davis-Bacon who supported the law based on their own warped view that it was designed to protect higher-paid white workers in the northeast represented by the authors of the law from “cheap colored labor” that would be imported to their districts from the South. The critics fail, however, to report Congressman Bacon’s reply that imported workers came in white skin as well as black.

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Wage theft victims have little chance of recouping pay in Illinois (IL)

By Melissa Sanchez and Matt Kiefer
Aug. 9, 2017

Most victims of wage theft in Illinois never see a dime because the system meant to help them isn’t working.

That’s not what labor advocates envisioned in 2010, when the state passed a bill meant to give employees a better chance of recouping stolen wages and to toughen penalties against the employers who stiff them.

The situation, however, has gone from bad to worse for the thousands of mostly low-wage workers who have filed roughly $50 million in wage claims with the state since the measure took full effect in 2014.

Workers who report wage theft now face longer wait times, higher dismissal rates and more red tape, according to a Chicago Reporter review of complaint records and enforcement procedures at the Illinois Department of Labor.

Fewer than 1 in 4 workers recouped wages within a year, the analysis found. The odds are so bad, many labor advocates say workers shouldn’t bother filing a claim.

“The worst that can happen to [employers] is that they can use the workers like a credit card, and pay them months after the claims were first filed,” said Jacob Lesniewski, an associate professor of social work at Dominican University, who has studied wage theft.

The Reporter’s review of wage enforcement records found:

  • More claims are dismissed: 58 percent in 2014, up from 41 percent in 2010. The state doesn’t track why cases are dismissed, but most are scrapped early, before workers get a chance to have the merits of the cases weighed.
  • Cases now take an average of nearly nine months to resolve, about two months longer than in 2010. If a case ends up going to a hearing, resolving it could take well over a year.
  • Even when workers win their cases, they might not be paid. Only about 1 in 10 of nearly 500 cases forwarded to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for collection resulted in payment, and collection can take years.
  • The state has let dozens of deadbeat employers off the hook by allowing them to settle claims early in the enforcement process, avoiding formal violations or financial penalties.

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Labor leader: Prevailing wage protects workers from ‘race to bottom’

By Matt Glynn , and Jonathan D. Epstein
Published June 30, 2017 | Updated June 30, 2017

New York State has had a prevailing wage law since 1894, and supporters say it’s needed to protect workers from being undercut and underpaid by contractors and government agencies. They also argue that prevailing wage laws help ensure that the size of public contracts – and the potential for a bidding race to the bottom to win them – don’t destabilize local and regional construction markets.

But critics say the laws hurt free-market competition, drive up costs on public projects and provide little real 30benefit to the economy other than protecting labor unions.

Conservative researcher E.J. McMahon and union advocate Richard Lipsitz Jr. recently sat down with The News to talk about the controversy over the state’s prevailing wage requirements.

Richard Lipsitz Jr. sees the prevailing wage law as protection against the “race to the bottom.”

The president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization covering 100,000 union members in six counties, Lipsitz has been active in the labor movement since the 1970s, and the federation he leads has been outspoken in the drive to raise the state’s minimum wage.

Q: How does the state’s prevailing wage benefit construction workers?

A: It is a wedge against the race to the bottom in the construction field. Without provisions like prevailing wage, there would be no guarantee that a contractor wouldn’t go down and pay the minimum that he has to or she has to. It’s a rule that keeps this race from the bottom from being carried out in the construction field.

And it also helps with the workers in all other fields. The idea of a prevailing wage, as a good wage and benefits package that people can live on, is mostly talked about in the construction field. But the Commerce Department keeps a prevailing wage on all kinds of occupations in New York State, not just for building trades. So I don’t think it’s quite right to just see it as a construction trades question.

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Veterans Urge Walker, GOP To Abandon Prevailing Wage Repeal

Wisconsin American Legion Argues Repeal Would Cost Veterans Jobs

Wednesday, February 22, 2017, 1:45pm
By Laurel White

Veterans are calling on Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers to abandon their proposals to repeal prevailing wage laws in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin American Legion representatives said Wednesday veteran jobs could be lost if state lawmakers move ahead with repealing the prevailing wage. The group says a large number of veterans work in construction after returning from service.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers removed prevailing wage, which sets minimum salaries for workers, on local construction projects. Now they want to end the prevailing wage for state projects.

“Why is it that always the budget is balanced on the backs of veterans,” said Daniel Seehafer, department commander with the Wisconsin American Legion.

Seehafer and his colleagues cited a 2016 Midwest Economic Policy Institute study that contends 2,000 veteran jobs would be lost if the wage repeal becomes law.

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Ky. Legislative update (KY)

By State Rep. Chris Harris
JANUARY 9, 2017

I fought hard during this first week of the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly to protect the interests of Kentucky’s working families against a rising tide of wealthy corporate interests, but in the end, our best efforts were blocked by the new ruling majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives. This week will go down in Kentucky history as one of the most damaging to working people.

Never before in modern times has a legislative session been used to do so much harm in so little time with so few opportunities for public input or debate. No time was wasted by Republican majorities in the House and the Senate to repeal prevailing wage standards in the construction of public projects and to enact what I call “right to work for less” legislation. These measures – affecting thousands of working families in Kentucky, both union and non-union – passed despite our strong objections and repeated attempts to slow the process long enough to let the voices of the people be heard during the legislative process.

Numerous studies and overwhelming data show workers’ wages go down when so-called “right to work” legislation, is passed. There’s a long list of other ills associated with right to work states – less health insurance coverage, poor workplace safety records, and less per capita spending on education, to name a few.

Repealing prevailing wage standards also lowers wages for building and tradesmen, like electricians, pipe fitters, plumbers, and steamfitters employed in public construction projects. These repeals also negatively affect the quality of construction and encourage out-of-state, fly-by-night contractors with employees of questionable training, skills and citizenship.

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Cleveland-area contractor sentenced to prison for paying workers criminally low wages (OH)

By Eric Heisigon January 17, 2017 at 2:54 PM, updated January 17, 2017 at 5:47 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A Cleveland-area contractor who paid his employees criminally low wages while working on projects for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority was sentenced Tuesday to 21 months in federal prison.

Marcus Butler, who operated of L & B Electric of Northeast Ohio, lied on forms between 2011 and 2013 and said he paid his employees $126,514.80 more than he actually had when doing subcontracting work at three CMHA properties.

The work was part of a federally-funded project, as the CMHA receives money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under federal law, employers working on federal projects are supposed to pay their workers a certain rate, known as a “prevailing wage.”

Butler, 32, of Bedford was indicted in 2015. He pleaded guilty in September to 61 counts of making false statements.

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Haverhill contractor settles allegations of overbilling MBTA, prevailing wage violations (MA)

Staff Reports
Feb 25, 2017

BOSTON – A New Hampshire-based general contractor with ties to Haverhill and one of its subcontractors have agreed to pay more than $420,000 for submitting false and inflated payment requests in connection with their construction of the Assembly Square Station on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Orange Line in Somerville, Attorney General Maura Healey announced Friday.

S&R Construction Enterprises, its president Stephen Early of Haverhill, subcontractor A&S Electrical and its manager Gregory Lane agreed to resolve allegations they violated the Massachusetts False Claims Act by knowingly submitting false and inflated pay estimates to improperly front load payments under their contracts. In addition, S&R Construction, based in Newton, New Hampshire, and A&S Electrical are barred from bidding on and accepting new public contracts in Massachusetts for five years and one year, respectively.

“Building new public transportation infrastructure is how we will move Massachusetts forward, and taxpayers deserve confidence in how we spend every dollar,” Healey said. “Overbilling and front-loading creates unacceptable risks of delays and degrades the integrity of our public contracting. Taking on this fraud is a top priority.”

“We are very pleased with this result, and thank the AG’s office for its excellent work in pursuing these claims,” said MassDOT/MBTA General Counsel John Englander.

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US LABOR DEPARTMENT RECOVERS $431K FOR WORKERS ON MANHATTAN’S FEDERALLY FUNDED PECK SLIP PROJECT

Litigation alleged prevailing wage, overtime violations

WHD News Release: 07/14/2016

Release Number: 16-1203-NEW

NEW YORK – Thirty-one workers employed on the federally funded cobblestone reconstruction project on Manhattan’s Peck Slip will receive $431,715 in back wages and interest following an investigation and litigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The department’s Wage and Hour Division found that the workers did not receive the proper prevailing wages and fringe benefits required under the Davis-Bacon and Related Acts and the Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act.

Sam Schwartz Engineering, a first-tier subcontractor under prime contractor MFM Contracting Corp. employed the workers. Investigators found that the employees who worked as flaggers on the project were incorrectly classified. The division alleged that – between August 2011 and January 2014 – they were paid $15 to $25 per hour instead of the prevailing wage rate of $44.49 per hour. The investigation also found workers did not receive all the overtime they were due under CWHSSA when they worked more than 40 hours in a week, did not receive holiday pay and that they were not paid on a weekly basis, as required.

The department’s Office of the Solicitor filed an administrative proceeding in 2015 against MFM Contracting and Sam Schwartz Engineering. The case is now being resolved with a consent findings and order approved by the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges. Under the order, workers from the Peck Slip project will receive $431,715 in unpaid wages.

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