On Thursday, February 3, West Virginia Senate passed HB 4005, a bill aimed at repealing the 81-year-old Prevailing Wage Act, which establishes that workmen wages for public improvement construction projects will equal the established hourly wage within the county where the work is performed. The repeal bill passed on party lines with a vote of 18-16.
The passage of the “repeal bill” happened just three weeks after the issue was introduced in the House on January 15. Republicans supporting the bill say that the repeal, along with the companion bill (SV 1) to make West Virginia a right-to-work state, will draw new business and increase the number of state funded construction projects, with both resulting in more jobs. Opponents, primarily Democrats, say both bills are designed to lower wages and to weaken the labor unions. Labor unions and a number of building contractors have voiced opposition to the bill as well.
Having moved quickly through both houses, with the House of Delegates passing it with a 55-44 vote, the bill is expected to be vetoed by Governor Tomblin. The quick passage in the legislature will allow time in this session for the houses to vote to override a veto. 18 votes in the Senate and 51 votes in the House of Delegates are required to override a veto.
Debate over the bill brought strong and somewhat emotionally charged speeches. In response to the argument that repealing the bill will bring more work by increasing the number of state funded projects, Senator John Unger, democrat Berkeley, retorted “We’re saying the reason we don’t have good-quality jobs is because we’re paying our workers too much.” Supporters of the bill point to the current economy in West Virginia as proof that the Prevailing Wage Act is hurting the economy. Majority Leader, Mitch Carmichael, Republican from Jackson, said “Socialistic tendencies to guarantee outcomes has not worked, and West Virginia is a classic example of an economy in decline.”
The process for determining regional prevailing wage rates was revamped in the 2015 legislative session, exempting projects that cost less than $500,000, and moving the responsibility of calculating the prevailing wage from the Division of Labor to the state government agency, Workforce West Virginia, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Labor.
The new rates went into effect on October 1 after a wage rate survey of more than 3,700 building contractors.