Montpelier has become the first municipality in Vermont to adopt an ordinance that requires construction workers on city-funded projects to be paid an hourly rate that meets or exceeds a wage table set for state projects.
The “responsible employer” ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council, mandates that any contractor awarded a project of $200,000 or more must keep a record of all employees who work on the project, their job classification, and notifications sent to the employee of the state “prevailing wage” for their job title. Workers must sign in to the job site, and the records must be provided to city officials by the contractor.
District 2 City Councilor Conor Casey, who led a year-long effort to pass the measure, said the idea is to make sure employees are paid fairly for construction work funded by taxpayers and to make certain that wages paid on city jobs match the state level. The ordinance mirrors a law passed by the Legislature in 2016 that applied to state-awarded contracts. Projects paid for with federal funds follow separate wage standards set forth under the Davis-Bacon Act.
Casey, a union organizer for the Vermont-NEA, said the ordinance will improve the safety and quality of construction work on city projects and limit “wage theft” caused by the misclassification of workers who might be performing work above the level of their job title. For example, the state prevailing wage table lists the minimum hourly rate for an electrician at $21.38; however, less scrupulous contractors could classify the same duties for an electrician’s helper, which pays only $15.11.
“It’s a matter of providing equity with our own workers,” Casey said. “It will help professionalize the industry and make sure the work is done in a more timely fashion and is of higher quality with less injury on the job.” He noted that the ordinance makes sense because workers on a city project should make the same amount as those on a nearby state project.
Casey added he would like to see other municipalities and school districts enact prevailing wage requirements.
Hourly rates posted on the state prevailing wage table apply to workers receiving benefits from their employer, including paid vacations and holidays, sick leave, employer contributions, reimbursements to health insurance, and retirement benefits. Employers who do not provide these benefits would pay a proportionally higher wage to cover benefits.
“People look at some of those rates and might think it’s a bit exorbitant, but it really isn’t given the nature of the job and how dangerous it is and how sporadic it might be,” Casey said.
Construction workers and union officials who attended the news conference said construction work takes a demanding toll on the body and careers can be relatively short. By ensuring a decent wage, more Vermonters might be inclined to take up construction work.
“We are looking to keep young people in Vermont and we need to have decent jobs to keep them here,” said Dennis LaBounty of the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “By providing a prevailing wage we would help make the decision easier for these students coming out of high school to go into the trades.”
Contractors Say They Pay More Already
Construction industry officials say the ordinance will have little effect on their business because they already pay workers the state prevailing wage or higher.
Matt Musgrave, deputy executive vice president for the trade group Associated General Contractors of Vermont, said the dwindling pool of construction workers in Vermont means most large companies pay higher wages in order to compete for workers.
“When we look at some of these prevailing wage laws, whether it’s Davis-Bacon or whether it’s Vermont’s prevailing wage, and when I actually look at what we are paying our staff to begin with, there is a very, very small percentage of groups within our organization that would be affected,” Musgrave said.
For example, Musgrave said many contractors employ professional flaggers who earn $18 an hour. The state prevailing wage for flaggers is $13.90.
Livable Wage Next for Council
The responsible wage ordinance will likely be followed next year by a push to establish a livable wage for all employers doing business with the city, Casey said.
Efforts are also underway in the Legislature to further increase the state’s minimum wage, which is set to rise from $10.78 to $10.96 on January 1.