Prevailing wage bill sent to Appropriations in unusual last-minute switch

first_imgby Hilary Niles vtdigger.org In a surprise move just before a full House vote Wednesday, a bill to align construction workers’ pay on some state projects with federal wage standards was bumped to another committee.H.878 would replace Vermont’s prevailing wage statute with the federal Davis Bacon Act. State and federal rules apply only to certain government-funded projects. The law does not affect public construction or private enterprises.Lawmakers and their lawyers huddle Wednesday on the House floor when a procedural objection to a labor bill surfaced. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDiggerUnions and labor advocates, backed by the Democratic caucus this session, support the switch. They say adopting the federal standard would “level the playing field” for union shops and contractors who pay benefits.Davis-Bacon wages are set by federal standards for different regions, so the wages in Vermont won’t necessarily match those of, say, California. Even within the state, there would be some variation by area.The federal standard increases labor costs relative to total project costs, rendering them less competitive than employers who pay lower wages or don’t offer fringe benefits. If all contractors had to pay higher wages and benefits, as Davis-Bacon requires, then the higher-paying shops couldn’t be outbid as easily, some unions argued.But the lowest-bidder rule of thumb that drives state contractor choices worries non-union industry trade group Associated General Contractors, which partners with Vermont Independent Electrical Contractors Association.Cathy Lamberton, a spokesperson for the two Vermont associations, said the discussion surrounding Davis-Bacon doesn’t account for non-traditional fringe benefits many contractors provide, such as educational costs, use of vehicles and allowances for work gear.Those fringe benefits will go away if Vermont adopts Davis-Bacon, she says, because employers won’t be able to afford both. But her biggest worry looms more than a year away, with implementation of single-payer health care in Vermont, she said.The Davis-Bacon wages incorporate the cost of health insurance, and the state’s single-payer financing mechanism would be levied on top of the Davis-Bacon wages, she said. That’s like being asked to pay for employees’ health insurance twice, Lamberton says.It’s an argument refuted by David Mickenberg, who represents the Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council.“We fundamentally disagree,” Mickenberg said by email, “with the premise that speculation as to what health care reform may or may not look like years from now should be used to deny Vermont’s construction workers benefits that make their families healthier, increase their training and skills, and provide retirement security.”Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, who was planning to present H.878 to the House on Wednesday afternoon before it hit a procedural roadblock, said arguments can be made on both sides whether Davis-Bacon costs or saves money. For him, it comes down to a matter of fairness.“Vermont (has) the lowest prevailing wage in the entire New England area,” Moran said. “It’s essential we put money into working Vermonters’ pockets.”Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, objected to the prevailing wage bill because it could cost the state more money, and it hadn’t yet been vetted by the House Committee on Appropriations. House rule 35a requires all bills “carrying an appropriation” to go before that group before they can be considered by the full chamber.Moran confessed to being caught off guard Wednesday by the floor action. He wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Turner’s objection prompted a minutes-long huddle behind the podium of House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville.Moran said in an interview Wednesday evening that Smith had previously consulted with House Appropriations Chair Martha Heath, D-Westford. The two had determined the bill did not require her committee’s approval.On the House floor, Smith overruled Turner’s objection, but a subsequent motion to move the bill to Heath’s committee won approval with no objections.Jeff Potvin, president of the Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council, heard about the development Wednesday afternoon. He said it seemed like an attempt to throw a roadblock in front of the bill.Potvin, Mickenberg and Moran all say they remain hopeful that the bill will pass. Turner could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.last_img

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