The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 29, 2004

Hurry up and wait - 1st part of Michigan wage survey complete

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Now we wait.

After undertaking an extensive 18-month project to help the U.S. Labor Department update Michigan’s prevailing wage rates, unions and their contractors have submitted thousands of wage survey forms to the federal government.

Unfortunately, it will take two years or more for the Labor Department to process the information and issue new prevailing wage rates for Michigan. The Construction Industry Survey Action Team (CISAT), backed by organized labor and their contractors, used mailings, phone calls and friendly nudges to get contractors to fill out forms in an effort to make sure that union wage rates “prevail” in all of Michigan’s counties.

“It was a lot of work but it was worth it,” said Don Mustonen, CISAT’s program manager. “We’ve shown what can happen when the trades and their contractors work together.”

The stakes are high for Michigan’s construction workers, both union and nonunion. In some Michigan counties, prevailing wage rates for some crafts haven’t been updated for two decades and stand as low as $7.50 per hour in some remote counties.

Furthermore, low prevailing wage rates put union contractors at a decided disadvantage when it comes time bid. On projects where federal money is involved – such as road and school work – nonunion contractors who bid on jobs in jurisdictions with low prevailing wage rates gain an advantage in winning work.

The effort to gather the wage information began in early 2003, after the federal Department of Labor announced that an extensive prevailing wage survey would be taken in Michigan. Knowing that another survey may not take place for another 20 years, unions and their contractors decided early on to attempt to get strong participation for the survey. Contractors were asked to fill out forms to provide wage information for various crafts they employed, as well as the location of their jobs, during calendar year 2003.

Mustonen said after a slow start, CISAT had an 85 percent response rate from contractors in filling out the forms.

“It was a struggle all the way through,” Mustonen said. “The DOL changed the survey period twice which raised the question of whether there would even be a survey. People don’t like filling out extra paperwork, and it does take some effort to dig up the records. Plus it was an education process with the employers, to get them to understand that getting accurate information to the Department of Labor benefits them, too.”

Michigan isn’t the only state that has undergone a prevailing wage survey. Iowa and Minnesota have completed such surveys in the past two years and are still waiting for the new wage rates to be published, Mustonen said.

The flood of new information – and the government’s lousy record in updating the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law – prompted the U.S. Labor Department to announce in September that it will soon release recommendations on how to improve the accuracy and timeliness of prevailing wage data.

The “credibility of wage determinations remains questionable due to continued concerns over the reliability of survey data on which they are based,” the Labor Department’s Office of the Inspector General, an review independent agency, said this summer. The recommendations are expected to be released soon, the Construction Labor Report said.