Restoring West Virginia’s prevailing wage would help public works projects, such as construction of Mercer County’s new Mountain Valley Elementary School, avoid costly and inconvenient delays. Photo Credit: Mercer County Public Schools

Students at Mountain Valley Elementary School in southern West Virginia’s Mercer County were forced to wait more than a month beyond the start of the school year for their facility’s grand opening. Construction delays were at fault, the state’s Affiliated Construction Trades reported in August.

At Ravenswood High School, along the state’s border with Ohio, not even a lapsed license could keep a million-dollar renovation project away from the low-bidding subcontractor, who also had failed to keep current on workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance coverage.

Before 2016, public works projects in West Virginia stood a better chance of being finished by qualified contractors on time and on budget thanks to the fair wages and standards demanded by the Mountain State’s prevailing wage law. But that year, the state’s overwhelmingly anti-labor Legislature repealed the 80-year-old law, and perhaps unsurprisingly, problems with public works projects have been multiplying ever since.

“Too many businesses and politicians claim that prevailing wage laws prevent them from saving time and money on public works projects,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “But over the last 20 years, study after study has found that prevailing wage laws actually prevent expensive delays and costly do-overs by putting those projects in the hands of fairly compensated and highly trained construction trades workers.”

Prevailing wage laws set a fair standard of pay and benefits for contractors and workers that stays in line with what local businesses normally would provide for similar private sector work. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have prevailing wage laws for public works projects.

Most are modeled after the U.S.’s Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which calls for such wages on federally funded projects. In West Virginia, a recent study published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City looked at dozens of public works projects there over the past three years and concluded that the 2016 repeal of prevailing wage “has had negative impacts for West Virginia’s construction workers, contractors, and communities while failing to deliver any meaningful cost savings.”

Having witnessed the effects of prevailing wage repeal around the country, construction trades activists from the IBEW and other unions in West Virginia fought for years against business interests that lobbied lawmakers and backed the election campaigns of anti-labor candidates who pushed repeal in the Mountain State.

“When all the talk of repeal was going on, we were warning everybody that lower wages and benefits would make bad contractors more competitive,” said Charleston, W.Va., Local 466 Business Manager John Epperly.

Not only did Epperly’s prediction come true, after prevailing wage was repealed in 2016, the study found that scores of skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen chose to drive hours away in pursuit of more lucrative prevailing wage jobs in neighboring Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Kentucky repealed prevailing wage in 2017; Virginia has never had it.)

The study further found that, since 2016 and accounting for inflation, average wage growth in the trades slowed by as much as 8% when compared with similar salaries in those bordering prevailing-wage states. Apprenticeship enrollment dropped by nearly 28% in the same time frame, with low-bidders reluctant to invest in training for low-skilled, out-of-state workers. Worse, the on-the-job injury rate among West Virginia’s construction workers shot up by 26%.

The cost savings repeatedly promised by repeal proponents never materialized. A School Board Authority analysis of 107 West Virginia school construction projects found that average school project costs remained roughly the same since repeal ($255 per square foot) as they had been before repeal ($252 per square foot), with expensive project re-do’s and missed deadlines all but wiping out low bids.

Epperly said that a good number of Local 466’s signatory contractors are merely surviving these days, instead of thriving as they had been before repeal. He believes, though, that as more stories like the ones out of Mercer County and Ravenwood come to light, it can only help electrical workers and others in the construction trades to bolster their case for bringing prevailing wage back to West Virginia.

The next opportunity to do so will come when the state’s 2020 legislative session gets underway in January. Bringing back prevailing wage with the current, mostly anti-union Legislature in power could prove difficult, Epperly said.

“Democrats are outnumbered 59-41 in the House [of Delegates] and 20-14 in the Senate,” he said, “which gives you an idea how close we are.”

But fortunately during the 2018 midterms, “Democrats managed to take back four seats in the House and two in the Senate,” Epperly said, something that raises his optimism about the chances that more friends of organized labor and the construction trades will be rewarded with seats in the lawmaking bodies during next year’s general election. “A lot more seats are winnable.”

“Prevailing wages bring better jobs, better working conditions and a better quality of life for all of us,” Stephenson said. “In places where it’s been repealed or where it’s threated to be, let your candidates know prevailing wage is a working people’s issue, not a political one — and that electrical workers always remember on Election Day who’s been in our corner, and who hasn’t.”