Should DelDOT workers get hazard pay?

 

Gov. John Carney joins DelDOT engineer Herb Monsalud and his family at a press conference in observation of National Work Zone Awareness Week at DE Turf on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — They’re a common sight around Delaware — holding stop signs, operating heavy machinery and setting up signage. They’re so common, in fact, that many think nothing of the Department of Transportation employees who stand on and alongside the roadways from Clayton to Delmar.

But the men and women who work on the roads, often separated from traffic by nothing more than plastic orange cones, are performing a job that should not be taken for granted.

Delaware officials held a news conference Wednesday to highlight the dangers road construction can pose, noting car accidents in work zones frequently leave people injured. While those injuries are seldom fatal, one road worker is killed on the job every week nationwide, according to DelDOT.

Since 1933, 33 DelDOT workers have been killed on the job. For comparison, 23 Delaware state troopers have died during the course of their duties since 1922.

That risk is a big part of why some lawmakers want to give those road workers hazardous duty pay.

Senate Bill 141 would add DelDOT employees who regularly work on roads to the list of state workers who qualify for extra pay on the basis of risky aspects of their job. Under the bill, about 650 employees would receive an extra $2,320 annually, and 350 would earn another $1,100.

Delaware State Police Sgt. Richard Bratz encouraged drivers to slow down in DelDOT work zones at a press conference in observation of National Work Zone Awareness Week at DE Turf on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“At the end of the day, we have workers in extremely hazardous situations that aren’t being compensated for it,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor.

Currently, the only state employees earning hazard duty pay are those who work in the state’s prisons, psychiatric center or juvenile detention facilities.

The measure would carry an annual cost of about $2.5 million.

Not only would the bill make the situation fairer for DelDOT workers, Sen. Townsend said, it would assist the agency in recruiting and keeping personnel.

“It’s very important to have skilled individuals in these positions, and when they can make much higher money elsewhere, it’s an issue,” he said.

He pointed to a bill passed by the Senate unanimously in March that forbids road flaggers from wearing headphones or using cell phones during the job as evidence legislators agree DelDOT employees working on the roads perform duties that can be dangerous.

A nearly identical hazard pay bill passed the Senate in 2016, with every Democrat voting in favor and every Republican except one opposing it. The measure made it out of a House committee on the second-to-last regularly scheduled legislative day but never received a vote on the chamber floor.

It appears a vote on the newest iteration will mostly break down by party once again.

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, a Sharpley Republican, has filed an amendment that would restrict the state from tapping into Transportation Trust Fund to cover the cost, although that proposed change is likely to be voted down by Democrats.

Created in 1987, the Transportation Trust Fund was intended to offer stability for DelDOT, providing a guaranteed source of money that could be used for road and bridge projects. However, it did not take long for officials to begin shifting the agency’s operating expenses into the fund, and by 2004, the agency’s entire operating budget, including the Division of Motor Vehicles, was in the fund.

Republicans have recently advocated for moving DelDOT’s budget back into the General Fund. Doing so would in theory offer more money for construction — but it would require legislators free up more than $300 million for the General Fund.

In 2017, lawmakers passed the second leg of a constitutional amendment forbidding money in the Transportation Trust Fund from being used for anything other than capital projects, debt and “Other transportation-related purposes, including operating expenses, to which moneys in the Transportation Trust Fund are authorized on the effective date of this Act.”

Sen. Townsend said he has been given the go-ahead by an attorney, but Sen. Lavelle disagrees with the proposal’s legality.

“I think it’s unconstitutional and it clearly violates what the intent of the amendment was,” he said.

Sen. Townsend, who Sen. Lavelle has butted heads with numerous times, noted “both parties had a major role” in using the fund for non-capital spending, instead arguing lawmakers should vote on the bill based on the merits of granting DelDOT employees hazard pay.

Sen. Lavelle said he is undecided about whether he would support the bill if it funds the pay increases through the General Fund.

“Everyone will then have visions of why their job is hazardous and will deserve extra pay,” Sen. Lavelle said, explaining he expects state workers to begin lining up to request hazard pay if the bill passes.

“If you’re going to give them pay raises, just give them pay raises,” he said.

A spokesman for DelDOT wrote in an email the agency “appreciates the recognition that some of our employees work in often dangerous conditions and support any effort to compensate them for this work.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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