Less than a quarter of contractors responded to this year’s prevailing wage state surveys, leaving industry representatives debating the best ways to improve the system.
“It can be improved, I think,” said Steve Stone, president of Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. “Unfortunately, I think there’s probably no magic wand or silver bullet to say, ‘This is the answer.’”
About 21 percent of contractors responded to the prevailing wage surveys from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The department mailed 21,705 surveys and, as of noon Tuesday, had received 4,627 responses. The 2009 response rate is higher than the 17.4 percent achieved in 2008 and 2007. The Department of Workforce Development also mailed out 7,700 more surveys this year than in 2008.
The deadline for contractors to reply to DWD was July 31. The state will use the wages reported by contractors to set wage rates for public projects in every county.
The industry, meanwhile, continues to argue over how to increase the response. Some suggest giving contractors incentives to respond, while others propose scrapping the entire system.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO earlier this year unsuccessfully proposed eliminating the survey. The organization tried to persuade legislators to insert a provision into the state budget mandating that prevailing wages mirror wages and benefits set in collective-bargaining agreements, said Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council. The idea fell by the wayside during budget deliberations, he said.
“Certainly that would free up some money,” Balistreri said. “There’s no question about that.”
Stone rejected the idea, saying it would be unfair to nonunion contractors if public works wages were based on union contracts.
Both union and nonunion groups oppose the idea of penalizing contractors that do not respond to the survey. State law requires that builders respond, but the law is not enforced.
Penalizing contractors that don’t fill out the surveys would probably increase response rates, but the state isn’t likely to have the manpower for enforcement, said Phil Neuenfeldt, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Jim Boullion, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., said his group supports the voluntary system.
“The (survey) results seem to be within reason,” he said. “The last thing the industry needs is another penalty hanging over their head.”
Stone said it’s always better for regulators to offer incentives rather than mandates. But he said he cannot think of any prizes the state could offer to increase response rates.
A response rate hovering around 20 percent might not even be a problem, Stone said, considering there is no evidence the prevailing wages are out of whack with general industry wages. He said it’s difficult to determine how many responses would give an accurate gauge.
“So what is the number?” he said. “That is the question.”