Steve Ellis and John Strickland don’t want to see West Virginia’s prevailing wage abolished.
The two commercial contractors from Charleston believe prevailing wage — the state law setting the minimum pay and benefits for laborers constructing public projects — is an essential part to their business and to the quality of life for the employees they hire.
The law was a primary target of conservative lawmakers in the state last session and attracted the ire of those same politicians when Workforce West Virginia, under legislative orders, changed how the wage and benefit levels under the law are calculated.
In a state currently facing severe budget cuts and monthly shortfalls in tax revenue, conservative lawmakers have attempted to show that removing minimum compensation levels for workers building schools and other public projects will save money, by driving down bids for that construction. They maintain that giving contractors the ability to pay their employees less than the current prevailing wage and forgo paying the required benefits will drop the cost of public projects and make state building funds go further.
Ellis, the president of Elco Mechanical Contractors, and Strickland, the president of MCS Construction, contest that point, and are concerned that removing the current prevailing wage system will lead to a smaller pool of trained laborers in the construction field overall and make it difficult for contractors that want to pay their employees a livable wage to survive.
“This is an economic discussion, not so much a construction discussion, because of where we are in the state of West Virginia right now,” Strickland said.
Lawmakers have criticized the complexity of calculating the prevailing wage for workers building government-financed projects and bemoaned the fringe benefits, including health and pension requirements, that are required under the system.
But Ellis and Strickland, who met with the Gazette Mail’s two editorial boards this week, said removing the current system would also affect the apprentice training program that is partially financed by contractors through prevailing wage.
As they explained, part of the benefits under prevailing wage go toward apprenticeship programs, often operated by trade unions, like the Plumbers and Pipefitters union and the Iron Workers union. Strickland said those programs give contractors like them the ability to call up skilled laborers when they need additional help on larger commercial and publicly-financed projects.
“It is the business model that both of companies have used where we can have a pool of employees that we can draw upon,” Strickland said. “We can call up on Monday, have someone there on Tuesday and lay them off on Friday.”
Before 1990, Strickland said he operated an “open shop,” meaning he didn’t rely on trade unions to help fill his labor needs for projects. But after that time, he moved toward union laborers because of the “ready supply of trained individuals” they supplied. He said they come drug tested, trained in workplace safety and certified in varying aspects of the trade.
“We get more production out of our manpower,” Strickland said, though he didn’t have data on that point. “I believe the worker that we have is more efficient than the employee I could be forced to hire in the future.”
Conservatives argue that the market — the contractors competing for bids — should decide what construction employees are paid and that the lowering of wages and benefits from their current levels will drive down the cost of public projects.
Ellis sees that as a bad choice. He believes the debate over prevailing wage is less about saving public funds and more about state leaders being asked to make a moral decision over whether workers constructing vitally-important projects throughout West Virginia deserve to be paid a livable wage.
“For me, for a family-owned company, it is very important to me that my people are all successful. It costs them the same money to buy a loaf of bread as it costs me,” Ellis said. “As a local contractor, I want to see them make a fair wage, a living wage, so they can buy a home, send their children to college and just live a fair life.”
With the difficult work that contractors put their crews through, Strickland said he can’t understand why someone would be upset about providing a good benefits package to those laborers.
“Climbing up and down on a ladder for 20 years is wear and tear on the body. These people, their bodies take a beating,” Strickland said, adding that most of the workers find themselves bowlegged and hunched over at the age of 55.
Neither contractor said they had any indication of how the whole prevailing wage issue would be resolved in the coming months, but they were concerned lawmakers could overturn the system that has helped their businesses and employees for decades.
“I want stability in the market place,” Strickland said. “We need stability in order to conduct our business.”
Reach Andrew Brown at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.