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Baltimore County Council approves legislation setting wage, hiring requirements for county contracts

The Baltimore County Council passed legislation Monday night that will set a standard pay rate and requirement to hire locally for contractors who win county-funded projects.

The legislative package introduced by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, will require prevailing wage — the typical hourly pay for local workers, often the rate for union labor — for most county-funded capital projects. The legislation also will require at least 51% of all new jobs for these projects to be filled by Baltimore County residents.

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The bill was approved 6-1 by the council. County Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, voted against the legislation. The law will apply only to capital contracts or projects put out for bid beginning July 1.

The capital projects include work on roads, bridges, buildings, water and sewer infrastructure necessary for the county government to operate. Under the law, contractors would have to pay employees — including apprentices — at a rate set by the Maryland Commissioner of Labor and Industry based on annual wage surveys of construction employers.

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The legislation will also apply to “county-subsidized” capital projects — projects funded through public-private partnerships — receiving assistance of more than $5 million.

Supporters of the legislation said it would prevent employers from denying workers benefits and earnings. But opponents are worried the law would impose burdens on small contractors and push employers out of the county.

Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said the law will create “direct and indirect” benefits the overall economy.

“People who provide an honest day’s work will get an honest day’s wage,” said Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

The prevailing wage proposal comes with some exceptions. The law wouldn’t apply to contracts already subject to federal or state prevailing wage law, contracts with a government entity, contracts awarded without competition, or “emergency” contracts, among other exceptions, according to the 16-page bill.

The county may waive or lower the hiring requirement if the contractors show “a good-faith effort” to comply, or none of the work is performed within the Baltimore metro area. The contractor also could get an exception if there aren’t enough residents with the skills needed for the work, or if the contractor agrees to special workforce development training with the county.

Under the law, contractors and subcontractors may only make “fair and reasonable deductions” required by law and authorized in a written agreement with the employee concerning food, sleeping quarters, or any collective bargaining agreements with a labor group and the employer.

Deputy County Administrator Drew Vetter told the council the department of economic and workforce development will enforce the prevailing wage law.

Employers will have to comply if an employee files a lawsuit against the employer to recover the difference between the prevailing wage and the amount actually received. Under this scenario, the employer could be ordered to pay damages to the county for noncompliance of no more than three times the amount of wages owed to the employee.

The bill prohibits ways to sidestep the requirements, such as paying employees through a third party or treating workers as subcontractors or independent contractors. Employers will have to maintain payroll records and allow county inspections. If violations are found, the county could withhold payment and even bar contractors from future county work in cases judged to be intentional.

Based on six years of the county’s capital budget, Olszewski’s administration said a prevailing wage policy is expected to generate 232 jobs, $35.1 million in income for workers, and $6 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a March 2020 analysis by Pinnacle Economics.

The council’s passage of the legislation means Baltimore County will join the state of Maryland, as well as four jurisdictions — Baltimore City, Charles County, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County — in enacting prevailing wage laws.

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