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Perennial Prevailing Wage Debate Pits Towns Against Labor Unions

by Hugh McQuaid | Oct 29, 2013 5:04pm
(5) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Labor

Hugh McQuaid Photo

Rep. Richard Smith and Rep. Peter Tercyak

Municipal associations asked the legislature’s Labor Committee to support changes to the state’s longstanding and politically secure prevailing wage policy at a public forum Tuesday in New Britain.

Connecticut law requires contractors working on state and town construction projects to pay their workers wages and benefits at least equal to rates posted annually by the Labor Department. The prevailing wage law applies to all new government construction projects above $400,000 and renovation projects costing more than $100,000.

Prevailing wage frequently pits organized labor unions against municipalities. The unions believe the policy sets important wage standards for construction workers, and the municipalities view it as a burdensome unfunded mandate.

Although those thresholds have remained unchanged since 1991, they’re often challenged by legislation, usually from Republican lawmakers, seeking to increase the thresholds or scrap the policy. More than a dozen such bills were proposed last year and died in the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

Efforts to change the law may face an uphill battle in the committee, which is chaired by Democrats Sen. Cathy Osten and Rep. Peter Tercyak.

However, for representatives of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns, the trigger modification does not seem like a big request. Litchfield First Selectman Leo Paul, a Republican, asked members of the committee to put aside their political allegiances and help relieve towns of costly mandates.

Hugh McQuaid Photo “We’re not asking that the prevailing wage be repealed. Simply, we’re just asking that it be updated,” he said.

Paul asked the committee to support legislation raising the threshold that triggers prevailing wage for new projects to $1 million and the trigger threshold for renovation projects to $400,000. He also asked that the technical distinction between a new project and repair work be clarified.

“Hometown leaders from both parties are realistic and recognize the political sensitivities of modifying any state mandate. For this reason local leaders seek reasonable compromises from increased construction costs known as prevailing wages,” he said.

However, not all local officials agreed. Middletown Mayor Daniel Drew, a Democrat, spoke in opposition to raising the thresholds. Drew said that workers in every community are responsible for funding their emergency responders and education system.

“If we increase those thresholds, you’re going to see workers all over the state of Connecticut bringing home smaller paychecks, which means less money is going into those local economies” and less money to pay taxes for public services, he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer, who prior to her appointment by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was president of a teachers union, also opposed changing the policy. She said some towns already have found ways to keep projects from reaching the threshold to require prevailing wage rates.

“Municipalities have learned to play games with the prevailing rate law,” Palmer said. “They cut down the contracts, cut them up into smaller pieces so they never reach the threshold. So I don’t think we need to change the law because that’s the reality.”

Paul disagreed with the assertion that towns were looking to shortchange construction workers.

“Make no mistake, municipal officials want all workers to be paid fair wages but the outdated prevailing wage thresholds that trigger this unfunded mandate are long overdue for an adjustment,” Paul said.

Tuesday’s hearing served as an informational forum on the topic. The legislature does not come back into session until February and it is unclear whether there are any plans to raise legislation regarding modifications the prevailing wage law.

A spokesman for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the speaker is not interested in reopening the prevailing wage issue. He pointed to an Office of Legislative Research report finding Connecticut’s thresholds among the highest in the country. Osten agreed but said she heard ideas during Tuesday’s forum regarding streamlining the prevailing wage process, which she intends to discuss with other Labor Committee members.

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(5) Comments

posted by: Art Vandelay | October 29, 2013  6:45pm

The Prevailing Wage and the Minimum Education Requirement need to be either revised or repealed.  It causes property taxes to continually increase to the point where it is driving seniors & others on fixed incomes who own property to pack their bags and leave.  The taxpayers in this state are being bled from every artery and vein.  There aren’t many left but the state keeps finding ways to tap new ones.

posted by: Diogenese | October 30, 2013  6:58am

Is there anything less Democratic than statements like

“A spokesman for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the speaker is not interested in reopening the prevailing wage issue. “

No one ever teaches a Civics class and tells students “Well, no matter how many people want something, if the speaker or majority leader don’t want it to move it’s dead…”

posted by: dano860 | October 30, 2013  7:51am

We have seen many grants from the State come up short solely because of the prevailing wage mandate (PW).
What this usually means is that we cut out certain aspects of the project, ie: eliminate the paving & line striping of a parking lot associated with the project or drop the lights in the parking lot. Does that portion not get done? Nope, we go back and get ANOTHER grant for that and maybe a few other small projects.
What we have learned is that we now go after a much bigger grant just to cover the P.W. that we know will only cause inflation of a project.
If the unions are as competitive as they claim, the need for the hand holding by the State is no longer required.
Years ago the motorcycle industry asked the Feds for a tax to be applied to imported motorcycles. The tax was applied but after a few years of getting their act together they told the Feds to drop the tax, they became competitive and to this day no longer need the Feds to hold their hands.
It is time for the union folks to grow up and stand on their own two feet, we cannot afford to support them any longer.
The tax payers of the State are not getting the bang for their buck that they should, in other words we are getting the screws put to us, by the unions again!
DROP THE P.W. REQUIREMENT!
Why the heck do we have a labor leader in the Labor Commissioner’s position? Oh ya, Dannel “I need money” Malloy the panderer in charge, disgusting.

posted by: Art Vandelay | October 30, 2013  9:24am

Democrats who hold key positions in the legislature are financed by the Unions. The Unions make sure they are placed in these positions to further their cause. Williams, Looney, Sharkey & Malloy owe their existence to them.  No matter how well people like Leo Paul and others state their case, the deck is stacked.  Taxpayers are the biggest losers.

posted by: ASTANVET | October 30, 2013  9:32am

woah - slow the bus down… you mean to tell me that artificially raised and mandated wages is an impediment to expansion or development?? For a second I thought I were reading Hayek or something - If only someone could connect the dots between the P.W and the minimum wage requirements and their effects on business - THAT would be journalism.