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Harris touts new prevailing wage rule for construction projects

Changes would revise rule that dates to the Reagan administration

Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks about infrastructure investment from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 7, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks about infrastructure investment from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 7, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris ​w​ent to Philadelphia on Tuesday to announce a new Labor Department rule that the Biden administration says will strengthen wages for construction trades workers across the country.

In addition to delivering remarks to union construction workers and union leaders, the vice president ​w​as visit​ing the site of a project at the Interstate 95 interchange with the Betsy Ross Bridge, one of several spans crossing the Delaware River.

Harris said a construction worker in the Pittsburgh area on the other end of the state who may be making $17 an hour would make up to $28 an hour under the new standard.

“That’s thousands of dollars more every year, to help put a down payment on a home for example, or to save for retirement, or to simply take their family on vacation once a year,” the vice president said.

“We strongly believe every worker deserves fair wages for their work,” Harris said in remarks at the Finishing Trades Institute. “I’m here today to announce that we are updating this law and giving workers across the nation a raise.”

The final rule that Harris and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su announced would reset the definition of prevailing wages under the federal law known as the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets standards for payments to construction workers on federally backed projects. The new rule would tie wages to “the wage paid to at least 30% of workers,” according to a fact sheet provided ahead of the official announcement.

The current standard for prevailing wages, set during the Reagan administration, is 50 percent.

A construction industry trade group, Associated Building and Contractors, said the rule-making would be challenged in court.

“The DOL is moving forward with dramatic changes to prevailing wage regulations, reversing much-needed reforms that were established nearly 40 years ago, and unlawfully increasing the regulatory burden on small businesses, new industries and public works projects,” Ben Brubeck, ABC’s vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs, said in a statement.

A senior administration official said the law is designed to provide “safeguards against the possibility that the federal government’s extensive construction contracting activity — that we don’t have the unintended consequence of depressing workers’ wages.”

The official said the rule also would expand prevailing-wage authorities to energy infrastructure, and it would allow state and local determinations to be used for setting federal rates when criteria are met by the local provisions.

“We haven’t looked at this regulation in an in-depth way in more than 40 years, and we all know that the construction industry … is really continuing to be such a vital part of our economy and our communities,” the official said previewing the announcement. “And we wanted to make sure that the regulations of the Davis-Bacon Act reflected the needs of that vital industry.”

Tuesday’s visit to Pennsylvania is just the latest of many for Harris and President Joe Biden, with the Keystone State playing a key role politically, as do the unionized construction workers that the vice president will address.

“Prior to the new rule, if the majority of workers in a given trade and locality did not earn a single wage rate, then the prevailing wage was determined by the average wage in a given trade in a locality. This average can pull down the prevailing wage if some employers pay very little,” the fact sheet said.

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