The Baltimore County Council has an opportunity to stand up for families, for local jobs and the economy, and for taxpayers by approving a proposed prevailing wage law on Monday. The measure accomplishes several things. First, it makes sure that contractors hired for county-funded capital improvements not only pay their workers a living wage but one that is appropriate for their job skills. Second, it requires that a majority of new jobs generated by such projects from building schools to fixing roads be filled by county residents. And third, and just as importantly as the other two, it helps ensure that the quality of work performed on behalf of taxpayers measures up to professional standards and that it’s done in a safe work environment.
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Setting a minimum wage for such jobs as carpenter or bricklayer for a government project based on what others make in the same market used to be quite controversial, but a majority of states now have them, including Tennessee and Texas, that are not exactly liberal bastions of socialism. Maryland adopted the practice about a half-century ago (and the earliest version, a minimum wage set for Western Maryland road projects actually dates to 1945). Not only are state government contracts subject to a prevailing wage, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles counties and Baltimore City follow the same policy to varying degrees. That leaves Baltimore County as the largest Maryland subdivision operating without a prevailing wage. It’s time that shortcoming was fixed.
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The only serious criticism of prevailing wage laws is that they may raise costs and reduce the number of jobs created by government spending. There is a logic to that. Paying a carpenter $25 an hour as opposed to $15 an hour involves writing a larger check and probably means you can’t hire as many of them. But experience shows that the calculation is far more complicated. And most contractors know it. For $26.66 an hour (the current state prevailing wage rate for carpenters in Baltimore County, for instance), an employer is likely buying a far more skilled and productive worker than someone plucked off the street. That person’s greater skill set and output makes a huge difference. Meanwhile, there’s a tremendous social benefit when that carpenter brings home a heftier paycheck that can actually support his or her family. And they, in turn, spend money in the local economy, an especially attractive feature during a COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic slowdown.
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But studies suggest the benefit is even greater than that. Hire highly skilled people and you also get a lot of efficiencies. An experienced and well-trained carpenter knows how to meet occupational safety rules, understands the building code and will make sure the workplace complies with professional standards. That translates to a safer, healthier environment. And, again, it reduces costs to taxpayers and contractors alike. It also promotes technical training and a skilled worker pool available for private projects, too. Even smaller contractors benefit to some degree by keeping the playing field level and the pool of local talent full.
If these benefits are so obvious, why does government need to be involved at all? Unfortunately, not all contractors follow professional standards closely or worry about the broader community’s economic welfare. Some are tempted to submit unrealistically low bids and then staff projects with a lot of temporary, low-skilled workers from elsewhere. If it means a wall isn’t plumb or highway drainage falls short of design? They are gambling nobody will notice. Governments are always on guard against such behavior, but sometimes problems slip through the cracks. A prevailing wage is just one more level of protection.
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There are, of course, some politics to all this. Unions have long championed prevailing wage laws for obvious reasons. Groups representing contractors have often opposed them. But it hasn’t been a front burner issue in this state for years with the debate mostly over tinkering (for example, Baltimore recently extended the prevailing wage mandate to cover Tax Increment Financing, or TIFs, where private projects are subsidized by tax breaks). Prevailing wage laws are not only commonplace in the Free State, they are currently in place in neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Yet the bottom line is that the law exists mostly to protect blue-collar workers and their families and, along with a strong apprenticeship program, they have done the job well. It’s time Baltimore County nailed down its end of the deal on behalf of carpenters and their brethren.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.