OPINION: “Prevailing Wage, Racist Then and Racist Now”

By: Former State Rep. Lenny Mirra – 3/24

Back in 1927 U.S. Rep. Robert Bacon of New York secured funding for a new Veterans Bureau hospital on Long Island and was horrified when a contractor from Alabama won the bid and came to New York with a crew of Black construction workers.

This led to him filing bill H.R. 17069, “A Bill to Require Contractors and Subcontractors Engaged on Public Works of the United States to Comply with State Laws Relating to Hours of Labor and Wages of Employees on State Public Works” which eventually led to what is now known as prevailing wage laws.

To say these laws are rooted in racism is putting it mildly, they were born of racism and though that’s not the intention today the effects are stubbornly and undeniably racist.

It requires all workers on all public projects to be paid “prevailing wages” for each category of worker, even though these wages do not really prevail for most workers.

In Massachusetts it requires the driver of a two-axle truck to be paid a base wage of $35.95 per hour, plus $13.41 for health benefits, plus $14.82 for pension, for a total rate of $64.18. If he drives a three axle truck the base wage goes to $36.02, and $36.14 if he drives a four axle.

If the same guy jumps into a backhoe his base wage jumps to $50.73, plus $13.75 for health, $15.80 pension, for a total of $80.28.

Not a big deal for a large company that’s been in business for a long time, their guys tend to stay in the same equipment, and they have staff experienced in complying with PW laws and submitting the “certified payrolls” required.

But consider a smaller company (and every new one is small) that doesn’t have the staff required for compliance and where workers perform multiple roles. If you want to grow from a small landscaping company to one that can do public works projects these barriers to entry are too high and difficult to get over, and so rather than publicly funded jobs being an opportunity for small businesses they are instead a dead end.

Also keep in mind that a lot of new construction companies are Black and Hispanic owned and operated, something you can clearly see on private jobs where there are no PW laws. The picture is a lot different on public works jobs.

This is why there’s a dearth of companies willing and able to do any kind of public work as these laws apply not only to new construction but also any kind of repairs to existing roads, bridges, buildings, etc. Thus, it’s not surprising that the cost of construction in Massachusetts is cripplingly high while the diversity of workers on them is low.

This is to the detriment of all, and it came to a head recently when voters came out in droves to vote against the construction of a new Whittier Tech building. By an almost 3 to 1 margin voters defiantly voted against the project, despite lots of money and effort by unions and the contractor, Consigli, pushing for a yes vote.

So instead of building a new $444 million building, which would be partially paid for by state money, the district could be looking at repairing the existing structure, which is estimated to cost around $350 million, but with no state aid.

The question nobody seems to be asking is why repairs should cost this much. The legislature needs to look into this and make it easier for companies to bid on and get public contracts, it would benefit taxpayers and minority businesses. ◊