Labor groups say prevailing wage repeal means lower worker pay

Legislation moving through the General Assembly would eliminate the state's prevailing wage law for public works projects. (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

Organized labor groups on Thursday said repealing Missouri's prevailing wage law is not a reliable way to bring down construction costs.

A bill moving through the legislature would eliminate the state's prevailing wage law. Jeff Aboussie, political director for the International Union of Operating Engineers, said prevailing wage gives contractors a way to compete equally for public works projects. He said prevailing wage benefits workers regardless of whether or not they are members of a union.

"To get hung up on prevailing wage is a detriment to the workers and their ability to stay in the middle class," he said.

House members gave the bill initial approval on Tuesday but have not yet given it a final up-or-down vote. Bill sponsor Jeffrey Justus, R-Branson, said current law artificially inflates wages to a point that cities and counties can no longer afford public works projects.

"I have a case where teachers had to paint their classroom because they couldn't afford to hire what prevailing wage said they had to pay a painter," he said.

Justus said getting rid of prevailing wage would let cities get more out of their investments.

A 2011 UMKC study found there was no statistical difference in average construction costs per square foot between states with prevailing wage laws and states without them. Prevailing wage table are set by the Missouri Department of Labor and vary by county and occupation. For example, in Cole County, a laborer working heavy construction on a public works project must receive $28.56 per hour. Marble and tile finishers receive the lowest prevailing wage in the county, at $14.35 per hour. Aboussie said wages account for 30 percent of a project's total cost.

Justus said his bill would not result in all workers being paid minimum wage. He said construction workers on private-sector jobs are paid market-based wages rather than prevailing wages, but they are still able to negotiate fair compensation based on their talents.

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