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Doubling down on prevailing wages

John Mielke is the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

By John Mielke

Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws should be changed so projects covered by the federal Davis-Bacon Act also would not be subject to the state’s standards.

This simple fix would ease the regulatory burden for contractors who work on public construction projects, and it would not thwart whatever public policy is being served by prevailing wage laws.

Under current law, projects that receive state, or municipal, and federal money can be subject to both state and federal prevailing wage laws. While both sets of laws purportedly serve the same purpose, they differ in application, creating a confusing patchwork of rules for contractors to navigate.

For example, both sets of laws require contractors pay employees based on job classification. But the job classifications under Davis-Bacon are different than those under state laws.

This often requires a contractor to pay one class of employees according to the federal rules and another class, on the same job, according to the state rules.

Similarly, federal rules require weekly payroll reports, but state laws do not. These differences, and others, mean contractors working on projects with state and federal money must toggle back and forth to be certain they are in compliance.

Simply exempting projects covered by Davis-Bacon from the state prevailing wage law would solve the problem.

Additionally, this proposal would reduce the workload for the state agency charged with administering prevailing wage by reducing the number of projects requiring a state determination and letting those employees focus their attention on projects covered only by state laws.

I understand that almost every aspect of prevailing wage, from the law’s origin to its effect on the cost of public construction, provokes controversy. Supporters argue this law protects workers. Detractors claim it increases the cost of public construction and is a Depression-era law originally passed to keep minorities out of the marketplace.

Those debates will continue and can be fought another day. The beauty of this fix is you don’t have to settle the larger prevailing wage debate.

These projects still will be subject to prevailing wages, but compliance will be simplified.

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