November 4, 2011
by Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
Assemblyman Keith Wright, who represents District 70 in Harlem, told the audience of building trade union leaders and employers gathered for a meeting of the Prevailing Wage Council that “we have to make sure that the building trades is truly reflective of New York’s diversity.” He noted that when he walks the streets of his district, “where the unemployment of black men in low-income areas can be as high as 50 percent,” people walk up to him and tell him they need work. But the majority of faces listening to him from their seats were white.
Wright said the Prevailing Wage Council is the only forum that exists in the state for pay equity. New York is one of 32 states, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., which feature a prevailing wage law for publicly-financed projects. The law, according to the city’s Comptroller’s Office, “requires that any company or organization that has a contract with a New York City government agency cannot pay less than the rate of pay set by the New York City Comptroller’s Office.”
For construction workers, the state’s Building and Construction Trades Council notes that “prevailing wage laws help to ensure a decent standard of living for union and non-union workers alike.”
Despite the established wage law, which owes its genesis to the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, there are detractors. Wright said that currently in Albany “people want to weaken the prevailing wage.” He noted that Industrial Development Authorities (IDA) throughout the state attempt to circumvent prevailing wage law. IDAs are public authorities that have to comply with the wage law when any construction work is done for the IDA itself. But, according to the state’s Department of Labor (DOL), the wage requirements do not apply to private construction projects which are financed by IDAs through the issuance of tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds.
During his tenure as Assemblyman, Wright has introduced a number of bills to strengthen prevailing wages. One bill enacted earlier this year compels utility companies or their contractors to pay workers prevailing wages when they are conducting roadway excavations.
But where there are laws, there are lawbreakers. John Liu, the city’s Comptroller, noted that so far this year $3.87 million in back pay have been paid by shifty contractors to workers, $224,000 worth of penalties have been assessed against contractors and six contractors have been debarred from doing business with the city again.
Jeffrey Elmer, Assistant Comptroller for the Bureau of Labor Law, cited the efforts of his office in exposing the shenanigans of employers who creatively try to avoid prevailing wage law. In one instance, a business agent from the Ironworkers Local 580 tipped off Elmer’s office that Spanish-speaking workers at a job site, after being interviewed, were being paid $500 per week, “far less than the prevailing wage,” noted Elmer.
The union presidents and business agents applauded the efforts of Liu and the Bureau of Labor Law for penalizing contractors. But they still voiced their concerns about ongoing infractions committed by contractors. Bill Nagle, Business Agent for the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union, told Liu and the panel that hundreds of bricklayers are out of work while non-union workers are working on different Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) projects.
Nagle asked of Liu and the panel, “What’s in the works?” for making sure that contractors are pre-qualified to work on HPD projects. Liu responded that he and the law bureau are “watching the HPD investigation very closely” [HPD’s assistant commissioner was just indicted on racketeering and other crimes], but that his team can’t conduct audits while there is an ongoing investigation.
Elmer told the union heads that the best way to launch an investigation of violations against prevailing wages is for the workers at the job site to file a notarized complaint. “Some workers on the sites, after talking with union business agents, have come forward.” And the Comptroller’s General Counsel, Ricardo Morales, implored the unions that the best enforcement mechanism is “to reach out and educate the workforce.”
Liu and Wright both said they are committed to enforcing the wage law as the new legislative season begins because the law represents access to the American dream for hard-working union members and ensures that the city doesn’t lose significant payroll tax revenue.
The Office of Management and Budget is seeking cuts from each agency for next year and the year after, but Liu said he has no intention of relaxing prevailing wage enforcement mechanisms. “In a tough economy, we should be directing more resources towards enforcement.”