Apr. 18, 2011 (The Virginian-Pilot delivered by Newstex) —
April 18–NORFOLK — When it was signed into law in 1931, the slogan could have been: “Hire locally.”
The federal Davis-Bacon law was meant to shield Depression-era put-people-to-work programs across the country from out-of-towners willing to be hired on the cheap.
The law, named after its Republican sponsors in the U.S. House and Senate, requires a regional minimum wage for specific trades on federally funded projects. The “prevailing wage” rule covers both union and nonunion workers.
Eighty years later, Davis-Bacon inspires similar arguments in its favor, along with strong dissent, lifted by a rising tide of anti-union and budget-cutting sentiment.
Union leaders say the law still prevents outsiders to an area, such as undocumented workers, from depressing wages. And with its documentation requirements for job classifications, they say Davis-Bacon offers a measure of quality control for the projects.
“It helps keep the standard of living that we have here,” said Wally Damon, the business representative for the Virginia district of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters. “It protects everybody. That’s what’s so good about it: You can’t show animosity towards someone for union or nonunion affiliation.”
Damon and other local union officials say, however, that violations are common. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that complaints about violations of the Davis-Bacon law nationwide shot up from 356 in fiscal 2008 to 1,428 in 2010. Last year, the agency found violations in 48 percent of the investigations it completed, spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson said.
Patricia A.J. Pickett, the assistant director of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in the local district, ascribed the surge in complaints to the growth of projects generated by the federal stimulus package.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently offered its own critique: Last month, the agency faulted the Labor Department for how it calculates and updates the wage rates.
The Labor Department sets the rates based on surveys of companies, unions and workers.
“Over one-quarter of the wage rates were based on six or fewer workers,” the GAO study said.
Others say Davis-Bacon’s flaws aren’t limited to enforcement and methodology. Two bills introduced this year in the U.S. House seek to abolish the law. U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, said that’s a good idea.
“I think, especially given the economic situation we’re in now, we don’t need an artificial wage support structure like we see in Davis-Bacon,” Forbes said.
In South Hampton Roads, the current wage minimums for building projects range from $51.33 an hour for boilermakers to $8.63 for some “laborers.” Most ironworkers receive nearly $36 an hour, and asbestos workers get paid about $32 an hour.
The Davis-Bacon and Related Acts cover projects — from construction to painting — that receive more than $2,000 in federal funds.
The concentration of military bases locally increases the number of Davis-Bacon projects, said Donny Groh, the business representative of Local 52 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.
The “prevailing wage” may be paid entirely as wages or as a combination of wages and benefits. The most common violations, Groh said, involve workers getting misclassified at a lower rate than they deserve or getting proper classification but not receiving the minimum pay for that level.
Groh’s local, in Norfolk, represents 110 people from the Outer Banks to the Northern Neck who repair, service or install elevators, escalators and chairlifts.
Earlier this year, Groh filed two complaints with the Labor Department against two elevator companies over wages paid on projects at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Elevator workers, he said, were underpaid a total of $58,000. Some were shortchanged more than $30 an hour, Groh said.
If the department finds that was true, it can order the contractor or subcontractor to pay back wages. Other penalties include exclusion from federal work for up to three years, “but I haven’t seen that too much in my experience,” Pickett said.
Since April 2008, the Labor Department has found merit in nine Davis-Bacon complaints in Virginia. Combined, the cases involved nearly 75 workers and about $47,000 in back wages.
In the only Hampton Roads case, Freedom Contracting Inc. of Chesapeake was cited for underpaying nine workers a total of nearly $21,000.
David Minton, the owner of Freedom, which has since closed, said he wasn’t aware of the carpenter rates in Norfolk at the time and later paid workers the difference.
Thomas Bell, business manager for Ironworkers Union Local 79 in Norfolk, said the number of complaints underrepresents the extent of the problems.
Workers, he said, hesitate to file complaints — “They’re weighing working period versus getting paid right.” Or they might not know what they’re entitled to.
Bell said he went to a work site last year and found that, contrary to federal law, it did not have a sign posting wage rates. He said he complained to someone in the local Labor Department office, but nothing was done. Pickett said her office provides wage posters to people who request them.
Stephen Ballard, CEO of S.B. Ballard Construction Co. in Virginia Beach, has mixed feelings about Davis-Bacon.
On one hand, the law “makes the playing field a little more even when you’re bidding on federal projects,” Ballard said. “Everybody has to use the same labor rates.
“The bad part of it is, some of the rates are a little excessive,” he said. “It just needs to be more realistic and not such a wide range.”
Ballard said the problems stem from union pressure and business apathy: “Unfortunately, a lot of contractors create their own problems by not filling out the surveys, so they go with what the union guys say.”
The GAO study singled out “little incentive to participate in Davis-Bacon wage surveys and a lack of transparency” as key issues.
The House bills to repeal Davis-Bacon were introduced in February by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Connie Mack, R-Fla. Both bills were referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in March.
Although Davis-Bacon covers union and nonunion workers, “I suspect that with the wave of anti-union fervor sweeping the country, the bills in the House will do quite well,” said Gary Chaison, a labor researcher at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
This year, Wisconsin and Ohio adopted laws restricting collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
“The movement that we have in Congress,” Chaison said, “is just a continuation of Ohio and Wisconsin, and the belief nowadays that you’re not only safe attacking unions, but you have public sympathy if you attack unions.”
Among local members of the House, Democrat Bobby Scott supports Davis-Bacon, spokesman Larry Dillard said. Republican Scott Rigell, like Forbes, wants to kill it.
“Repealing Davis-Bacon mandates are vital not just because it would save the federal government billions of dollars each year, but because it would also eliminate unnecessary burdens that small businesses currently face when competing for federal construction projects,” Rigell said in a statement.
In the Senate, a budget amendment to exclude Federal Aviation Administration projects from Davis-Bacon requirements was defeated 55-42, mostly along party lines, in February. Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb voted against the amendment.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner did not vote because one of his daughters had a medical emergency, spokesman Kevin Hall said. Warner submitted a statement to the Congressional Record in support of Davis-Bacon.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to protect American workers, especially in these tough economic times,” Warner wrote.
Chaison said he expects the House to approve repealing Davis-Bacon, but not the Democratic-led Senate. Nevertheless, “I think it’ll definitely come back” for future votes.
Local union leaders also predicted that attempts to kill Davis-Bacon will fail. “All these politicians make deals,” said Damon of the carpenters union, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Philip Walzer, (757) 222-3864, firstname.lastname@example.org
Newstex ID: KRTB-0212-102864318