BY TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – When it came time for final debate in the Missouri House on HB 104, a bill to repeal Prevailing Wage on public works projects in the state, Representative Douglas Beck (D-Affton), the ranking minority member of the House Economic Development Committee, stood at the microphone, hand in the air, clutching a piece of paper and waiting to be recognized by Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson.
Richardson proceeded to ignore him, stated “Seeing none” and called for a vote. The measure passed by a vote of 89 to 60 and advanced to the Senate.
Richardson later apologized to Beck, saying he might have been too quick to swing the gavel, but the damage was done. Prevailing Wage repeal was passed, and working people represented by Beck, a 30-year member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, weren’t even given a chance to be heard.
“I know I wasn’t going to change the outcome, but I would have liked to have said my peace for the people – for everybody back home,” Beck said.
Prevailing Wage establishes a minimum rate that must be paid to workers on state-funded construction projects in Missouri. Existing law requires contractors and subcontractors hired for taxpayer-funded public construction projects to pay a fair wage based on local standards. Under HB 104, they would only be required to pay minimum wage, substantially driving down wages and benefits for all Missouri construction workers.
“Repealing Prevailing Wage does not reduce construction costs, it only reduces the wages to construction employees,” Beck said. “Study after study has shown that.”
To fight back against the repeal effort, the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council has been running TV ads featuring contractors and members talking about the issue.
“Prevailing Wage, I think, is greatly misunderstood,” Paul Brockmiller of Brockmiller Construction in Farmington said in one of the ads. “I think that the legislature is trying to take a pro-business attitude right now, but they’ve missed the point on Prevailing Wage.”
Missouri’s Prevailing Wages are set on a county-by-county basis for each type of work involved in a project based on voluntary wage surveys submitted by contractors working in each county.
For example, the Prevailing Wage for carpenters is about $25 an hour for public works projects in central Missouri’s Boone County, and about $37 an hour in St. Louis and Kansas City.
By contrast, the state’s general minimum wage is $7.70 an hour.
“These guys are out there every day, hitting it hard. When it’s hot, they’re out there working, when it’s cold,” Brian Murphy of BAM Contracting in St. Louis, said in another video.
“Why would you begrudge a guy a decent wage to be out there working so hard? You need a skilled man or woman doing this kind of work. You don’t want just anybody doing work on your public building because the quality goes down.”
And “just anybody” is exactly who will be working on the state’s public works projects if the Prevailing Wage repeal goes through, Beck said, because it will allow out-of-state companies that pay their employees lower wages to undercut Missouri contractors.
“It’s not really a union thing, this is a Missouri thing,” Beck said. “You’ll have people coming from Arkansas and this kind of thing where they make $12 or $15 less an hour to work here and they’re going to take that money and they’re going to leave. They’re going to pocket those tax dollars and they’re going to leave. It’s not going to cost any less.”
GLIMMER OF HOPE
Senator Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) is offering a glimmer of hope in preserving the law, albeit with some modifications.
Wallingford told the Southeast Missourian changes are needed in how local Prevailing Wages are calculated under the law, but added that Prevailing Wage helps to ensure “quality craftsmanship” on public works projects. “My goal is to fix it, not just throw it away,” Wallingford told the paper.