Lack of common sense prevails in prevailing wage debate: Editorial

By Patriot-News Editorial Board The Patriot-News –

As legislative leaders try to round up votes in the state House for the badly-needed transportation funding bill, some recalcitrant Republicans have signaled that they might come aboard in return for passing a measure weakening the state’s “prevailing wage” law.

That law says publicly-funded projects have to pay workers the “prevailing wage” in that area. It prevents companies from winning the low bid on publicly-funded construction projects by importing cheap workers from other locations.

A horse-trade like that is an unseemly way to do legislative business. Each of the two issues deserves a straight-up look on its own merits.

Linking the two big issues also seems like bad strategy. Even if weakening prevailing wage did pick up some votes for transportation funding from Republicans, it would lose votes from Democrats.

But the real problem is what weakening prevailing wage would do to hard-working Pennsylvanians.

But the real problem is what weakening prevailing wage would do to hard-working Pennsylvanians.

It would set off a race to the bottom, where lowest-bid contractors win their business by paying their workers less and less, limited only by how desperate workers are for a job.

That’s why some responsible contractors actually support the prevailing wage law. (And no, not all of them are union contractors.)

As James Gaffney, president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Pennsylvania. said during last year’s debate on the issue, “The [prevailing wage] law levels the playing field so local contractors who hire local workers aren’t underbid by fly-by-nighters.”

Prevailing wage law is geographically flexible, allowing pay rates to vary in different places across the state. Smaller communities are allowed to pay workers less than they’d make in Philadelphia and other large counties.

When local governments complain that the law drives up a project’s cost, they might just as well say, “We want to save our taxpayers a few bucks by using our spending power to wring lower wages out of the people who do the work for us.”

On most public construction projects, labor is only about a quarter of the total cost. Even if wages were cut in half, the savings on a project would be no more than 12.5 percent. Local governments could save a lot more than that on their projects if the state would let them use prison labor, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

With one minor exception, there’s nothing wrong with the prevailing wage law that needs to be changed.

Complying with the law does involve extra paperwork, and that burden falls most heavily on small projects, like Harrisburg Young Professionals’ pending renovation of the decrepit ballfields at Italian Lake.

Projects less than $25,000 are exempt from prevailing wage, but that exemption hasn’t been raised since 1963. Resetting the exemption at $100,000, as a bill from Rep. David Millard (R-Columbia County) would do, is a reasonable accommodation.

Not so the more drastic changes that some House Republicans have been eager to make.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, would exempt repaving jobs. Those are big projects – often grinding away the top layer of a road and putting down large amounts of new pavement.

That’s not the kind of small-scale “maintenance” work that is understandably exempt. Marsico’s bill would let a favored segment of contractors start paying their workers lower wages. It starts to chip away at the whole concept of prevailing wage.

Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, would go even further. He wants to exempt local governments from prevailing wage, unless they decide to opt-in. That would be a great boon for politically connected local contractors — but not so great for those hoping to work on local projects. Contractors would be free to pay as little as they could get away with.

With unemployment still so high, it’s hard enough for people to find and hold a job that pays enough to support a family.

Pennsylvania definitely needs to ramp up the pace of work on the state’s aging bridges, roads, and mass transit, to make sure unsafe conditions and congestion don’t stifle the state’s economic growth. Pennsylvania doesn’t need to do so by making it harder for workers to earn a decent living.

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