In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, two bills are currently making their way through the state legislature that seek to change prevailing wage standards. House Bill 709, which is co-sponsored by Warren, PA Republican Kathy Rapp, would allow school districts to declare themselves a “public body” exempting them from paying the prevailing wage on any construction projects funded by themselves. Much like California’s various charter city efforts, a so-called public body would not exempt projects funded by the federal, state, or local governments.
The other bill, HB 1329, would raise the prevailing wage threshold from $25,000 to $185,000, meaning far fewer projects would qualify for the better wage. The bill would also prevent dividing of projects to keep them under the threshold.
Both bills are being supported by House Republicans and are being spun as cost-saving measures for Smalltown, PA. However, they both would effectively accelerate the race to the bottom in terms of wages. Prevailing wages are often referred to by detractors as “union wages,” a false assertion. The prevailing wage is the expected wage of regional tradesmen and women and applies to union and non-union workers. The fact that union members have better representation in terms of labor rights results in union representatives more frequently fighting for wages on behalf of workers of all ilks.
The savings associated with prevailing wage exemptions come at the expense of workers, point blank, but proponents of exemptions argue that these savings are paramount and that more contractors and companies will be able to bid and bid sufficiently low to make these negative outcomes worthwhile. A new study in the Bay Area of California, however, found that prevailing wage statutes do not effect the number of bidders or bidding behavior on projects. The prevailing wage, rather, has fallen victim to the GOP’s war on regulation, the type of regulation that is needed to prevent exploitation of workers and ensure quality craftsmanship.
PA House Republicans are hoping to gain support for House Bill 1329 during this legislative session. The bill was pulled from the table in the last session when it did not receive enough support to pass.
House Bill 709 was discussed by the Warren County Council of Governments on October 3rd and was positively received by its Republican members. Warren County sits in the far North section of the Commonwealth, roughly half an hour south of Jamestown, NY. While this new measure aims to save money on a select few non-state funded projects, it is much more likely to sink overall wages in a county with an unemployment rate at 7.2%.
Lowering the wages of skilled members of the trades is unlikely to be what saves a fledgling local government. In fact, it is likely to hurt the county as they will lose tax revenue — depressed income means depressed taxes. Luckily, these two bills may have difficulty in the General Assembly where they will meet opposition from both parties: outlier Republicans who understand working people and many Democrats who generally support workers’ rights.