Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, pictured middle left touring the Portland, Ore., Local 48/NECA training center March 24, is championing an overhaul of the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act to strengthen federal prevailing wage rules. On the tour, Walsh and a group that includes Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, watch apprentice Amber Sommer demonstrate a conduit bending tool.

A Labor Department plan to strengthen federal prevailing wage regulations and enforcement under the Davis-Bacon Act would put more money in the pockets of an estimated 1.2 million U.S. construction workers.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said the changes will “help us make sure our skilled workers and wages can’t be undercut” and are especially timely as projects funded by President Biden’s Infrastructure and Jobs Act surge nationwide.

“Federal dollars should be used to create good jobs in local communities all across our country,” Walsh said. “These proposed regulations are good for workers, good for building high-quality infrastructure and for ensuring we have a strong construction industry, as we rebuild America.”

The 1931 law, signed by President Herbert Hoover, was weakened by a Reagan-era overhaul 40 years ago. Most notably, it reduced the rate paid to workers on federally funded construction projects by changing how local prevailing wages are calculated.

The DOL wants to restore the original formula and review it more frequently so that rates set for federal contractors continue to align with local construction wages.

The update includes anti-retaliation language to protect workers who raise concerns about payment practices from being fired or discriminated against. There are also new strategies for recovering back pay.

The long-sought revisions are welcome news to the IBEW and its building trades partners.

“The proposed updates will restore the Act’s intended bipartisan purpose to protect the hard-earned wages of construction workers, and in doing so, shield them from exploitation,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.

The Labor Department, which has been setting a record pace for pro-worker initiatives the past year, made its proposal public on March 11. A 60-day comment period in underway, as required for all federal rulemaking.

“Our members are the nation’s best-trained, most highly skilled construction workers and for 40 years, the law has let federal contractors get away with paying them less than they deserve, along with their building trades brothers and sisters,” said Austin Keyser, assistant to the international president for government affairs.

“That’s money that could have been invested in college funds, vacations, home repairs, and anything else that a fairer calculation of prevailing wages would have provided for,” he said. “Labor Secretary Walsh and the Biden administration innately understand what that means to working families, and that’s why they’re pushing to fix Davis-Bacon.”

According to the DOL, the Davis-Bacon Act and 71 related statutes cover roughly $217 billion in federal and federally assisted construction projects each year, a figure that is expected to swell with infrastructure spending.

Which makes it urgent to act now, said Jessica Looman, acting administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division and the former head of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council.

“Given recent unprecedented investments in our nation’s infrastructure, this comprehensive regulatory review is necessary to ensure employers on federally funded or assisted construction projects pay fair wages to the workers who build our roads, bridges, federal buildings and energy infrastructure,” she said.

Communities and taxpayers reap the benefits, too, Looman stressed, “by ensuring all contractors can compete on equal footing and by preventing employers who pay workers substandard wages from gaining an unfair competitive advantage.”

Stephenson said modernizing Davis-Bacon adds to an ever-longer list of ways that President Biden is making good on his promises to workers and unions.

“These efforts by President Biden, Secretary of Labor Walsh, and the entire Biden Administration mark the start of a new day for our members and their families,” he said.

“As IBEW electrical workers and others in the building trades embark on the mission to usher our nation’s aging infrastructure into the 21st century, we applaud the administration’s efforts to ensure that pay reflects the work of this highly trained, highly skilled workforce.”