Prevailing wage in the spotlight once again

 

DOVER — The Department of Labor has postponed a hearing on proposed changes to prevailing wage regulations after receiving questions about the potential adjustments.

Prevailing wage, which governs how much laborers on state-funded construction projects are paid, was a hot topic over the past few months as Republican lawmakers pushed to suspend or alter the wage while Democrats resisted. Ultimately, no changes were made, but the guidelines surrounding prevailing wage are included in this month’s list of state regulations under review.

The department’s recommendations would strike portions of the Delaware Code but would not, according to the agency, greatly alter procedures.

“The intent of the proposed changes was to put into regulation what is already current practice around prevailing wage, not to make changes about how and when prevailing wages apply,” Department of Labor spokesman Leon Tucker said in an email. “The Department of Labor planned to seek feedback from members of the public and stakeholders during a public hearing on July 21st, but considering the various questions about the proposal, we plan to delay our process to allow for more consideration of the changes and additional discussion from stakeholders before moving forward.”

No date for a new hearing has been set.

Labor Secretary Patrice Gilliam-Johnson was unavailable for comment, and agency officials did not speak further on the record.

Top lawmakers of both parties said they were unaware of the potential changes, although Republicans were quick to object to the proposal once they learned about it.

In a letter to Gov. John Carney Thursday, the Senate and House minority leaders and whips blasted the Department of Labor as “a rogue agency.”

“As we have stated many, many times, the prevailing wage program is a luxury that our state can no longer afford. We have made that case to your administration, and to legislative leaders,” the GOP legislators wrote. “Moving forward, we will continue to make the case to the public, and we sincerely hope that you will accept the fact that artificially boosting the wages of construction workers in a way that values their contribution more than our teachers, first responders, correctional officers and most state employees is simply wrong.”

Lawmakers raised the triggering threshold in 2015 from $100,000 to $500,000 for new construction and from $15,000 to $45,000 for repairs, essentially allowing the state to get more bang for its buck.

In June, as debate over prevailing wage reached its zenith, Republicans blasted the process as “an incestuous relationship between ruling Democrats and their political allies in the state’s labor unions,” even accusing Democratic lawmakers and unions of “corruption.”

Democrats have consistently defended the wage as helping middle-class families and putting money back into the economy, and they criticized Republicans for “leverag(ing) our state budget for an ideological viewpoint.”

Prevailing wage is based off the average wage construction companies pay on state-funded projects, although opponents argue the determination process is skewed. Some GOP lawmakers are also skeptical of the fact the Office of Labor Law Enforcement is overseen by former Democratic state Sen. Tony DeLuca.

Prevailing wage rates are often several times higher than what a worker would earn otherwise. The average hourly wage for an electrician, for instance, is $27.24, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Delaware, under prevailing wage, electricians on construction jobs partially paid for with state dollars earn $66.85 an hour.

Opponents of the policy say it increases costs by more than 20 percent.

In the letter to Gov. Carney, the Republican legislators said they believe the proposed changes are unconstitutional because they would be enacted by the department and not the General Assembly.

According to the Delaware Code, lawmakers have “conferred on boards, commissions, departments and other agencies of the executive branch of state government the authority to adopt regulations.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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