A new group made up of labor unions and union contractors has given notice that it will monitor federal construction projects in Maryland and other states to make sure contractors comply with federal wage laws.
The organization, called the National Alliance of Fair Contracting, has sent letters to bidders on the $35 million Old Severn River Bridge replacement project, letting them know that the group will be checking certified payrolls and interviewing employees to make sure workers are being paid wages according to the law.
Contractors who are awarded projects receiving federal money are supposed to pay employees according to a set wage scale whether the workers are union or non-union. State Highway Administration inspectors who work on the projects are charged with seeing that the contractors comply with the wage laws.
But William P. Kaczorowski, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, says contractors sometimes break the law. Most often, violations occur on non-union sites when construction companies force workers in lower job classifications to do jobs at higher classifications and don't pay them for it, he says.
"With all the budget cuts it's going to get worse," Kaczorowski says. "There's more people willing to become victims of unscrupulous contractors."
The National Alliance for Fair Contracting says it is out to stop such unscrupulous practices.
The effort began in California in the mid-1980s and spread to a number of states. In June 1990, the National Joint Heavy and Highway Construction Committee, an organization of building-trade unions and union contractors, met to plan a strategy to monitor wage compliance on construction projects. Last summer, the National Alliance was formed to unite a number of local monitoring agencies.
Terry Bumpers, executive director of the National Alliance, says that, because Maryland doesn't have a state or local committee monitoring federally funded construction projects, the National Alliance will do it with the help of local unions.
Bumpers says the National Alliance aims to provide a "level playing field" for union contractors when bidding on prevailing wage projects against non-union firms.
When contractors cheat, workers lose out on pay they are due, states lose tax dollars and fair contractors lose work, he says.
George Williams, administrator of the National Alliance, says the organization is not designed to pit union against open-shop contractors.
"It's not a union or non-union issue," he says. But he concedes that pay discrepancies don't usually occur on union jobs because the unions themselves monitor the work to make sure workers are being paid at the right scale.
Williams says federal budget cuts have made it increasingly difficult for the federal government to properly monitor the programs.
But Jim Kelly, deputy construction chief engineer for the State Highway Administration, who oversees observance of the wage laws on federal projects in Maryland, says his staff has not had trouble keeping up with the work.
"It doesn't take that much time to do it right."
Each of the approximately 100 federal highway projects in Maryland has an inspector assigned to the site whose job is to monitor wage compliance as well as see that safety and building standards are met. Kelly says he doesn't believe there has been a problem with contractors paying workers the proper wages in Maryland.
When problems arise, workers usually notify the inspectors that they are not being paid what is owed them, he says.
Kelly says he hasn't heard of the National Alliance or the letter the group had sent to the bidders on the Severn River bridge, but says the state is not opposed to the monitors as long as they identify themselves.
Earle K. Shawe, a Baltimore labor lawyer, says he thinks the National Alliance may want to go beyond monitoring wage laws and try to organize non-union workers.
"We should be wary of simply accepting the National Alliance's claim to be interested in protecting workers' wages," Shawe says. "They also have their own interest in expanding member roles by 'encouraging' contractors to sign on as union employers."
Bumpers denies that the National Alliance tries to organize workers.
Victor Cyran, executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, an organization of non-union contractors, says the group is not opposed to the National Alliance as long as it does not try to organize workers on the job sites.