Group battles to repeal state’s prevailing wage law
A group of lawmakers and pro-business activists is pushing anew to repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law, a rule they say drives up the labor costs of many public projects and sticks taxpayers with unnecessarily larger bills.
To succeed, they’ll have to overcome union influence and 50 years of history with the law.
“When government gets too big, it operates inefficiently, and I think this is an example of the government putting its will on the people and lower levels of government,” said Ambrose Rocca, manager of Franklin Park, whose council recently passed a resolution “urging the General Assembly to free our taxpayers from the undue fiscal burden placed on them by the Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act.”
Advocates for the law, however, say it helps ensure quality work because higher-paying jobs attract skilled, productive craftsmen.
“I think it helps ensure private investment in training and the pursuit of family-sustaining careers for Pennsylvania residents,” said Jack Ramage, executive director of the Master Builders Association of Western Pennsylvania, a Green Tree-based union with 200 members.
The law requires that workers on publicly funded construction projects costing at least $25,000 be paid a wage set by the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. The rates vary by locale. To determine them, the department considers wage rates and employee benefits in collective bargaining agreements, among other factors.
The Local Government Conference says the state’s wage requirements increase project costs by 10 to 17 percent; other reports estimate the increase to be as much as 30 percent, according to the association of boroughs.
Those estimates are inflated, because labor accounts for less than 20 percent of project costs, said Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania State Building & Construction Trades Council in Harrisburg.
Lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Mario Scavello of Monroe County and Stephen Bloom of Cumberland County, staged a statewide video conference call on Friday to call attention to the law.
“We can’t continue to burden our taxpayers with more expenses on school and road construction projects across Pennsylvania,” Bloom said in a statement. “Our workers should receive a fair wage but it shouldn’t penalize our taxpayers.”
When Shaler sought bids from contractors for a roof on its public works garage, two of 16 roofers expressed concern about paying the prevailing wage for a small project, township Manager Timothy Rogers said.
Though the law attracts qualified, trained contractors, Rogers said, “It does drive up the cost of projects.” Shaler awarded the $48,000 job, scheduled to begin in July, to Madison Remodeling in Scottdale.
Municipal officials, school district leaders, government trade associations and other groups point to antiquated regulations and inflated costs of projects as reasons to amend or repeal the 1961 law.
Lawmakers tried over the years to increase the $25,000 threshold or loosen other restrictions but no bills were passed. Those pushing to amend the law by adjusting the threshold for inflation say it should be about $189,000.
In April, the Local Government Conference, which includes the Pennsylvania Municipal League, Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs and other groups, visited the Capitol to urge lawmakers to enact reforms. Two of 10 bills introduced to amend the law this session moved forward and then were tabled.
Opponents of the law remain optimistic that it will change.
“It will be a ‘heavy lift’ to get the two bills through the General Assembly and to the governor’s desk but prevailing wage — in terms of modernizing the threshold and addressing maintenance — is a legislative priority for our members,” said Courtney Accurti, spokeswoman for the boroughs association.
Eighteen states do not have prevailing-wage laws, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Of those, 10 states had their laws invalidated by the courts or repealed by the state Legislature.
The strength of unions historically affected prevailing-wage systems, which are drawing attention across the country as local governments and school districts look for ways to address budget woes, said John Delaney, dean of the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.
One of the biggest issues is protecting specialty trades from competition from inferior workers from lower-cost areas, he said.
“If we’re going to put up a bridge, we want people who know how to put up a bridge,” Delaney said.
Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or [email protected].