You are browsing the archive for Prevailing Wage.

Toshi Seeger and Respect for the Working Man and Woman

7:42 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State

Pete & Toshi Seeger

Toshi Seeger’s hard work helped Pete’s music shine.

Toshi Seeger’s obituary last week in The New York Times brought a smile to my face.

Toshi provided her husband, the folk singer Pete Seeger, with the organizational skills without which he would have not been so influential or commercially successful.

Toshi also kept him grounded. “I hate it when people romanticize him,” she said. “He’s like anybody good at his craft, like a good bulldozer operator.”

That simple sentiment works in both directions. It helped make sure Pete Seeger would not become too big for his britches. It also communicates deep respect for the bulldozer operator — and for hardworking people more generally.

One of many problems with the obscene income inequality that has emerged in the United States since the 1970s is that too many people in the “1%” (and the smaller groups at the very, very top) seem to have convinced themselves that they are not only deserving but also somehow different than — better than — other people.

Economic elites and the broader culture have also come to respect much less the hard work of regular folks — the nurse’s aide and the sanitation worker, the back hoe operator and the warehouse worker, the truck driver and the child-care teacher. Legislators and advocates for local government communicate this, for example, every single time they seek to cut the state’s prevailing wage for construction workers.

Along with their serial refusal to look at the ample evidence that paying construction workers decently does not increase construction costs, these proponents of weakening prevailing wage laws imply, again and again, “anyone off the street can do construction work just as well as experienced crafts workers.” It’s not true. It’s deeply offensive. And it’s sad that the people being so dismissive of other people’s skills don’t even realize how insulting they are being.

Maybe a few folks reading Toshi Seeger’s obituary will pause briefly to reflect on the moral compass that led her to equate her phenomenally successful folk singer husband and a good bulldozer operator. That would be a good thing.

Read the rest of this entry →

Dumb and Dumber PA State Construction Policies

11:25 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

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.

Prevailing Wage Opponents Fail to Look at the Research

9:16 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

The Final Part of a Three-part Series on Prevailing Wage by Mark Price and originally published at Third and State. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

In the first two posts of this series, I explained why the numbers being tossed around by advocates of repealing prevailing wage don’t add up. I explained that the claims of cost-savings are not based on any actual experience and that they represent the result of laughable hypothetical, or “what if,” calculations. 

This leads to the most important point that the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, the Harrisburg Patriot-News Editorial Board and others keep missing: we can do much better than a hypothetical when assessing the impact of prevailing wage laws.

There is a body of research that examines construction costs (and other construction outcomes, like safety, training investment, wages, benefits, etc.) in states with and without prevailing wage laws as well as in states that eliminated prevailing wage laws. We don’t have to conjecture what “might” happen: we can look at what did happen. The preponderance of the evidence shows that prevailing wage laws do not raise construction costs.

Back in the late 1990s, Pennsylvania actually ran this real-world experiment itself — we lowered our prevailing wage levels, particularly in rural areas. That means we can look at what happened to construction costs. What happened is the same thing that has happened in other places — lower prevailing wages did not translate into lower construction costs. 

Specifically, the Keystone Research Center’s 1999 study of this late 1990s Pennsylvania policy experiment examined changes in public school construction bids when Pennsylvania’s prevailing wages were lowered substantially in rural areas. Keystone found no association between the number of occupations in which the prevailing wage was lowered and the price per square foot of school construction bids. If anything, construction bids appeared to go up more in areas where prevailing wages were lowered more.

Advocates of repeal often point to sympathetic construction managers in the public sector who testify, based on their expertise, that prevailing wage laws raise costs. Not only did the Keystone study find no statistical evidence of a cost difference during the period wages were lowered, but the study highlighted two revealing instances of construction managers making wild predictions that just didn’t come true:

The recent experience of two Pennsylvania school districts show that even increases in legally mandated prevailing wage and benefits rates do not necessarily increase public construction costs. In March 1999, after two months of legal uncertainty about required prevailing wage levels, [the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry] began issuing prevailing wage rates that were higher than the 1999 rates. The Blue Mountain School District, in Schuylkill County, was planning to renovate its high school.  In April 1999, the school district’s construction manager estimated that construction costs would increase by about $670,000 as a result of the higher prevailing wage and benefit rates. But when bids for the project were opened on May 6, the low bids, which were expected to be about $15.1 million, came in at only about $13.8 million, almost 9 percent below the anticipated level. And in April, bids for a middle school construction project in Tamaqua, which used the same prevailing wage and benefit rates as the Blue Mountain bids, also came in under budget estimates.

Read the rest of this entry →

Prevailing Wage Opponents Fail Labor Market Statistics 101

7:47 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

Commonly available statistic calculator, alas unused (photo: andresrueda/flickr)

Commonly available statistic calculator, alas unused (photo: andresrueda/flickr)

Part Two of a Three-part Series on Prevailing Wage by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State. Read Part 1.

The overwhelming weight of evidence based on the actual cost of public construction projects shows that prevailing wage laws do not raise costs. Therefore, advocates of repealing the law in Pennsylvania ignore this evidence. Instead of “evidence-based policy,” we have “lack-of-evidence-based policy.” Go figure.

Repeal advocates use a hypothetical calculation that makes assumptions about cost, rather than empirically examining the relationship between higher wages and total construction costs. (As discussed here, even these hypothetical cost estimates don’t make sense once you apply real world data to how much labor costs represent of total construction cost.)

Another key ingredient in the hypothetical calculations used by proponents of repeal is the claim made most recently by the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs (PSAB) that “the prevailing wage is 30 percent to 60 percent higher than the average wage for the same occupation.”

This claim is based on an update of a flawed calculation by the Commonwealth Foundation. It compares the prevailing wage levels by trade as set by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry with the average wages for construction occupations reported in Occupational Employment Statistics (OES). The prevailing wages are 30% to 60% higher than the OES averages.

The problem is, the Commonwealth Foundation/PSAB calculation is the proverbial apples-to-oranges comparison: it measures different portions of the construction industry.

OES data include wages paid to workers employed in the residential construction sector — smaller, less-complex projects than prisons, bridges, schools and other state-financed construction. Residential construction relies on workers less skilled and experienced than those needed for larger state projects.

Indicative of this skill gap in Pennsylvania is the fact that construction workers employed in nonresidential construction — most of which is private sector, not public — earn 52% more than construction workers in the residential construction sector. In other words, the gap between the occupational prevailing wages set by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry and average construction wages reported by OES reflects the wage gap between residential and nonresidential construction.[1] (See Table 1 below.) Read the rest of this entry →

Prevailing Wage Opponents Fail the Laugh Test

7:19 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

(photo: martinsphotoart, flickr)

(photo: martinsphotoart, flickr)

Part One of a Three-part Series on Prevailing Wage by Mark Price and originally published at Third and State.

Prevailing wage laws have long operated nationally and in states as a check against the tendency of the construction industry to degenerate into destructive wage and price competition. Such competition can drive skilled and experienced workers from the industry, reduce productivity and quality, and lead to poverty-level jobs, all without saving construction customers any money.

In an exhaustive review of the research on the impact of prevailing wages on contracting costs, Nooshin Mahalia concluded:

At this point in the evolution of the literature on the effect of prevailing wage regulations on government contract costs, the weight of the evidence is strongly on the side that there is no adverse impact. Almost all of the studies that have found otherwise use hypothetical models that fail to empirically address the question at hand. Moreover, the studies that have incorporated the full benefits of higher wages in public construction suggest that there are, in fact, substantial, calculable, positive benefits of prevailing wage laws.

Although the weight of evidence suggests prevailing wage laws do not raise costs, advocates for repealing the law in Pennsylvania continue to repeat some version of the following:

Prevailing Wage law also harms taxpayers, as it forces them to pay higher labor costs on public construction projects. Construction companies forced to pay union-inflated wages and benefits will pay upward of 30 percent more in labor costs for identical work on private sector projects. This adds a little more than 20 percent to the cost of every taxpayer-funded construction project — resulting in an estimated $1 billion cost for state and local taxpayers each year.

- Matthew J. Brouillette
President & CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation
March 22, 2011

What is the source of this 20% saving claim? One source is Nathan Benefield, the research director of the Commonwealth Foundation, in this 2009 blog post. Read the rest of this entry →

PA Must Reads: Unemployment Benefits Extended, Prevailing Wage Change Stalls and Running Government Like a Business

7:48 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

What a difference an election year makes. Last year was full of pointless brinksmanship over federal policy issues that will take several decades to solve. Those battles at times looked like they threatened the near term health of the economy.

The New Year is shaping up to be very different. The New York Times reports this morning that a deal has been struck to extend the payroll tax reduction and extended unemployment benefits through the end of the year. Tentatively, it looks as if efforts to weaken the unemployment insurance system have been blocked. Both the payroll tax reduction and extended unemployment benefits were set to expire at the end of February, and the failure to extend them was on most economists’ lists of things that could weaken the economy in 2012.

The Allentown Morning Call reports that an effort to weaken Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law appears to have stalled. There is little evidence that the presence or absence of prevailing wage laws raise public construction costs. There is, however, abundant evidence that repeal of these laws lowers the wages of construction workers. Read more here.

So why the effort to weaken the law? It is about catering to owners and executives of contractors who pad their pockets by paying workers’ poorly.

Governor Tom Corbett, meanwhile, is touring the state to promote his 2012-13 budget.

Corbett insisted to reporters during his tour of the high-tech Siemens Medical Solutions plant that his 2012-13 plan for a steep new cuts in state aid to higher education — including 30 percent less money to state-backed schools such as Pennsylvania State and Temple Universities — could be dealt with by reducing campus operating costs, not by raising tuition…

“A lot of people are upset at spending at that level, but that’s all the money that we have,” he said, reiterating his vow not to raise taxes…

He argued that the state had to be run more like a private business — like Siemens, in fact — to create more jobs and cut costs.

“We can’t continue to raise our prices,” he said, referring to college costs. “If Siemens kept increasing prices, they would make themselves uncompetitive.”

Speaking of “all the money that we have” and running the government like a “private business” that gives away its services for free even when it has no idea whether the benefits of that policy exceed the costs … Governor Corbett has signed into law an extension of Keystone Opportunity Zones.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday signed a bill extending for 13 years the Keystone Opportunity Zones program that exempts businesses from paying many state and local taxes.

Exemptions run for up to 10 years, but the bill lets companies enroll through the end of 2015 so the program now will run through 2025…

While KOZs started in 1999 to promote the use of distressed lands and run-down properties, lawmakers and observers noted instances in the early years of the program where companies enjoyed the tax benefits without investing in properties or creating jobs.

Finally this morning, we have lots of news on the impact of economic austerity around the state. For starters, school districts in Cumberland County are moving to balance their budgets by raising fees, and the Lancaster School District faces a budget shortfall.

The Philadelphia City Controller has issued a grim warning about the Philadelphia School District’s financial future.

As expected, City Controller Alan Butkovitz included a warning Tuesday about the Philadelphia School District’s finances in a report that could result in higher borrowing costs for the district.

The comprehensive annual report, sent to bond-rating agencies and bondholders, includes a paragraph expressing reservations about the district’s financial viability.

The school district, the controller’s office said, “has experienced continued operating funds losses, is projecting significant budget shortfalls for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, and is uncertain about its ability to achieve cost savings and obtain additional funding to overcome these budget shortfalls. These conditions raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”

And social service agencies in Northeastern Pennsylvania are bracing for cuts.

The week that area social services agencies have had to chew on the cuts in Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget has not made them any easier to swallow.

Amid still-unanswered questions over how a 20 percent smaller pool of funding within a revamped Human Services Development Fund will be distributed at the local level, critics say the one certainty is children and people with disabilities will be among those bearing the brunt of the cuts.

“It’s going to take through the year to find out who really are going to be the victims here,” Michael Hanley, executive director of United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, said Tuesday. “Certainly, what we do know is it is going to be the most vulnerable. That is a given.”

PA Must Reads: Tax Benefits For Corporations, Health Care and Prevailing Wage

8:49 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Toll Bros., the Pennsylvania-based homebuilder that benefited mightily from the housing bubble, also managed to benefit handsomely from you the taxpayer. This morning, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that company profits are down from the previous period in part because the company claimed an eye-popping $59.9 million tax benefit in the 4th quarter of last year.

You can’t open the opinion pages without coming across an article from the business lobby claiming businesses need more tax breaks. The fact is these companies got huge breaks that helped boost CEO pay but haven’t translated into robust job growth.

Toll attributed the year-over-year profit decline to write-downs on inventory and joint ventures, as well as charges related to retirement of debt.

A $59.9 million tax benefit in the year-ago quarter also had provided a big boost to the builder’s income in that period, when the pretax loss was $9.5 million.

Since we are talking about construction, Stephen Herzenberg has an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot News on the impact of prevailing wage laws on public construction project costs. The Keystone Research Center also released a briefing paper (PDF) on the benefits of the prevailing wage last month.

The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning discusses the bills moving in the Legislature that would limit oversight of health insurance rate increases. With many insurers facing little competition in their local markets, limiting public oversight over rate increases is giving a near monopoly permission to price gouge. Sharon Ward explains.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also has a story on the Career Support Network, a program that aims to help workers get and keep jobs by combining job training with health coaching. Health problems for obvious reasons are a key factor limiting many workers’ ability to hold down jobs.

Knowing that, Cornman-Levy jumped at the chance to link the training groups with Jefferson’s health education, screening, and treatment.

Jefferson and the centers set up a small screening protocol for people enrolled in the green-jobs program.

They found that nearly 50 percent of the students, mostly African American males, were prediabetic.

‘It was alarming,’ Cornman-Levy said, ‘but I thought, “Wow, we’re really onto something.” ‘

That test led the federation and Jefferson to receive a $425,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to set up screening, peer counseling, education, and a host of services aimed at helping these unemployed workers get and keep a job.

So far, contributions have come from the Thomas Scattergood Foundation, the Independence Foundation, the Boeing Foundation, and the Job Opportunity Investment Network, a local network of philanthropic groups focused on workforce development.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a survey commissioned by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools has found that some employers view unfavorably the job higher education overall is doing to prepare students for the workplace.

The group surveyed more than 1,000 employers in various industries last month about whether job applicants possess the skills to thrive in the workplace. More than half of employers said finding qualified applicants is difficult, and just under half thought students should receive specific workplace training rather than a more broad-based education.

I’m not sure what to make of this survey, but for those interested in the dirty details, here are some links to the results:

Regulations, Jobs and Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage

2:50 pm in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Bruce Bartlett, former advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has a column in the Economix blog at The New York Times today with compelling fresh evidence (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) that job creation is not hampered by regulation but, you guessed it, a lack of demand.

Also this morning, as if on cue, news stories appeared about the movement Monday of bills to weaken Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage statute. The Pennsylvania House majority leader called the current prevailing wage statute a “job-crushing” law — without actually providing any evidence, naturally.

This week is off to a great start! Monday we demonize the unemployed and Tuesday it is all about regulation. I can’t wait for Wednesday.

… Republicans … embrace the idea that government regulation is the principal factor holding back employment. They assert that Barack Obama has unleashed a tidal wave of new regulations, which has created uncertainty among businesses and prevents them from investing and hiring. No hard evidence is offered for this claim; it is simply asserted as self-evident and repeated endlessly throughout the conservative echo chamber … The table below presents the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] data [based on information from companies about the causes of large-scale layoffs]. As one can see, the number of layoffs nationwide caused by government regulation is minuscule and shows no evidence of getting worse during the Obama administration. Lack of demand for business products and services is vastly more important.

For these who want to evaluate prevailing wage laws based on actual evidence, the Keystone Research Center released a briefing paper on Monday. The basic finding of the economic research: prevailing wage laws don’t raise construction costs (or kill jobs), but they do boost training, skills, safety, and productivity. What’s not to like? Oh, that’s right, prevailing wage laws help preserve middle-class jobs. Can’t have that.

Finally, a piece on the chief of Governor Corbett’s new privatization panel.

About $2 million in state contracts have gone to a Pittsburgh-based law firm whose chief executive was recently picked to lead the governor’s new privatization panel.