By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State
I've got an idea: let's employ low-wage, low-skill, and sometime out-of-state workers on small and medium-sized state-funded construction projects, with no benefit to taxpayers and negative impacts on local economies.
Sound like a stupid idea? That's because it is.
Here's the backdrop: Pennsylvania's prevailing wage law requires that workers on state-funded construction projects be paid a wage in line with what most other workers in their trade are paid within a certain geographical area.
Research in peer-refereed academic publications shows that the law could be called the quality construction law because it helps ensure the use of skilled workers on state projects. Where prevailing wage laws exist, training investment, worker experience, wages, benefits, and safety levels are all higher than where these laws do not exist.
Overall construction costs are the same with or without prevailing wage laws. The prevailing wage law, however, makes it impossible for contractors that employ low-wage, out-of-state workers to win bids on state projects: it ensures that jobs go to local workers, who spend their money at local businesses.
More middle-class jobs, stronger local economies, higher quality construction, no cost to taxpayers: what's not to like?
Unfortunately, some members of the Pennsylvania Legislature seem unwilling to leave well enough alone. Through House Bill 1329, these lawmakers want to make the prevailing wage law to apply to less state-funded construction work. How so? By exempting projects of less than $185,000 from prevailing wage standards. Currently, the law applies to all state-funded projects of $25,000 or higher.
Why one wants a threshold at all is not clear; eight states don't have one. They have, instead, a clear policy of supporting a high-wage, high-skill approach to all state-funded construction.
Of the 32 states that have a prevailing wage law, only three have a threshold as high as that proposed in House Bill 1329.
Raising the threshold may not be as stupid a policy as eliminating the prevailing wage law altogether, or carving big parts of public construction (e.g., school projects) out of the law. But it's still dumb.
For a complete list of our research and commentary on Prevailing Wage see our Prevailing Wage Issue page.