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Industry questions wage report prep work

By Paul Snyder

Construction companies are disputing the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s claim it adequately prepared the industry for changes to the state’s prevailing wage law.

The changes require contractors file monthly reports on prevailing-wage payments on public works projects valued at $25,000 or more. DWD first made the 50-field reporting spreadsheet available in January, weeks before the first reporting deadline of Feb. 7.

DWD Secretary Roberta Gassman on Friday laid out a timeline of what the department did between Gov. Jim Doyle’s June 2009 signing of the state budget, which included the law changes, and Jan. 1, when the changes took effect.

She said department staff spent July and August developing law changes and preparing information technology programmers for changes to the department’s Web site. In September, she said, DWD began an “extensive” communication effort that included mailing to builders exchanges a five-page summary of the new wage thresholds and law changes.

That was followed in October, Gassman said, by mailing the same information to such industry organizations as the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin and the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. She said she expected the exchanges and organizations to inform their members.

“As to the question of how long we’ve been putting information out, the documents started going out at the beginning of September,” she said. “We had a substantial amount of information in people’s hands in October.”

But builders exchanges and contractor associations do not cover every company working on prevailing-wage projects.

Jill Steffes, office manager for Mount Calvary-based Badger Well Drilling Inc., said her company is not a member of ABC or AGC, and she found out in mid-January when a contractor on a prevailing-wage project told her she would have to submit a new report to the state.

“I would have been clueless otherwise,” she said.

Milwaukee-based Masonry Restoration Inc. also found out about the changes in January through another contractor working on a project, said the company’s president, Karen Forrer.

DWD did not hold informational sessions before making available its reporting spreadsheet in January, Gassman said, because the spreadsheet was not ready.

“But given the public process and the information that was available,” she said, “everyone should have known about this.”

ABC last month filed a request for an injunction suspending the wage reporting law because, the group argues, the spreadsheet goes beyond what was called for in the state budget. As a result of a Dane County Circuit Court review expected to conclude April 19, DWD is prohibited from enforcing penalties against contractors that do not file reports.

But ABC should have pressed the department harder last year, said Robb Kahl, executive director of the Construction Business Group, a prevailing-wage monitoring organization financed through the Operating Engineers Local 139. The law changes require unions submit to the state only their collective-bargaining agreements rather than a completed spreadsheet.

“If the shoes were reversed, and it was my contractors that were going to have to prepare for these changes,” he said, “I would have been demanding meetings with DWD, saying, ‘By September, we want to be able to do this and by October we want to be able to do this.’”

Between July and December, ABC held six seminars in different parts of the state to inform members of the law change, said ABC Vice President John Mielke.

Mike Ballwanz, the vice president of Fond du Lac-based Ahern Gross, said he was at one of those seminars.

“But I walked away thinking, ‘Something’s coming, but I don’t know what,’” he said. “Because the actual reporting tools weren’t available yet.”

Gassman encouraged contractors struggling with the new reporting requirements to contact DWD for help. She said the department will continue working with the industry to comply with the law.

But even as more contractors become aware of the law changes and DWD representatives join contractor-training seminars to help companies understand reporting, confusion lingers.

Kym Sopha, project manager for Poynette-based A&A Environmental Inc., said she only found out about the new reporting requirement in the first week of February.

She submitted the company’s January report by the Feb. 7 deadline, but she said she thought that would be the end of the reporting.

“Are we going to have to keep doing this?” Sopha asked.

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