The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 16, 2013

Laborers fume over push to repeal prevailing wage

HARRISBURG — With state House Republicans making a push to tack prevailing wage repeals onto legislation that would pour billions into transportation funding, laborers like Keith Toner fume.

Toner, of Montgomery, Lycoming County, is a union laborer who belongs to Local 1180 in Harrisburg. His main job responsibilities include assisting bricklayers by doing things like assembling scaffolding for bricklayers and carrying the bricks – 22 at a time.

“We’re out in 0 degrees and we’re out in 90-degree weather,” Toner said. “That’s why all construction workers have skin like leather.”

Toner said that without prevailing wage, he would not be able to afford his home without traveling all over the country trying to fine suitable work.

The prevailing wage for a laborer in rural Pennsylvania is between $17 and $25 an hour, according to the Department of Labor’s database.

Prevailing wage rules are triggered any time a publicly funded construction project exceeds $25,000. Critics say the prevailing wages are inflated and do not reflect free-market pay rates.

“I get tired of them taking from the working man,” Toner said. “These administrators get paid by the taxpayers. How do they expect me to afford my taxes if they cut my pay?”

The state House stalled about 30 votes shy of the number needed to pass a transportation funding plan. House Republicans have begun working to get prevailing wage tied to the transportation funding in order to coax conservative members into supporting the gas tax hike that would pay for road and bridge repairs. A House vote could happen as soon as this week, though most now believe it is more likely that the measure will not reach the House floor until next week.

Toner knows that his tax dollars are helping fund the very lobbying efforts that are trying to drive down his pay. Among the most active groups lobbying to get prevailing wage rules changed are taxpayer-funded organizations representing municipalities and school boards.

For instance, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association received $4.25 million in dues payments from local school boards in 2012. The Pennsylvania State Association for Township Supervisors received $1.13 million in dues from local governments in 2011.

But only a fraction of that money goes for lobbying, said David Sanko, executive director of the township supervisors association.

Lobbying disclosure records filed with the state Department of State show the school board association claims it spent $71,675 on lobbying in the most recent 12-month period on file. The township supervisors group spent $56,186 on lobbying in the same period.

“I’m not going to suggest we don’t lobby,” Sanko said. That money includes all of the organization’s lobbying efforts, not just those focusing on prevailing wage, Sanko said.

“We focus on pro-taxpayer legislation and keeping the cost of government down,” he said. “It would misleading and inaccurate to suggest that we are focusing on attacking the working man.”

The association represents 1,445 townships, all but 100 of the townships in the state.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association defended the spending on lobbying.

“You have to consider how much more is a construction renovation costing because of prevailing wage,” Robinson said. “Wal-Mart doesn’t have to pay those kind of costs.”

Sanko said that his organization is only seeking to have the threshold for prevailing wage increased to adjust for inflation since the original wage threshold was set in the 1960s.

But union officials say that the prevailing wage is ultimately intended to help keep spending on construction wages in Pennsylvania. Without prevailing wage, there is a risk that out-of-state contractors will win jobs by hiring low-wage, poorly-trained workers, said Frank Sirriani, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council.

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