Health Benefits for Harford Workers

December 02, 1993

With all the national concern about health insurance, there's a certain appeal to a bill requiring contractors on Harford County construction projects to provide health coverage for their workers.

Council President Jeffrey Wilson says his legislation would make bidders on county projects more humane, responsible employers, which would improve their reliability and productivity. Contractors would likely employ a more stable, experienced work force if they offered this benefit.

However, the complex issue of health-care coverage is finally being worked out in Washington and Annapolis, with strong VTC hopes for a broader based system of coverage soon. To force a health insurance requirement on Harford contractors at this point would be an unnecessary complication.

Such a measure would also unduly burden county taxpayers with higher building costs and could result in the concentration of projects in the hands of larger contractors who could afford the overhead, squeezing out smaller firms from bidding. The cost is not inconsiderable, an estimated 5 percent added to the total project cost; that could amount to $1 million each year for an average package of county projects worth $25 million.

The bill originated with the Baltimore area building trades unions. County Executive Eileen Rehrmann opposes it. So does the Harford Chamber of Commerce. County Council members are ambivalent because it would increase spending (and taxes) only months before they face re-election.

Cost-overruns and delays on recent county projects raise questions about the quality and reliability of contractors that have won project awards, Mr. Wilson argues. Two recent school construction projects (which are outside the county bid process) also experienced major delays because of contractor problems, he notes.

But there's no direct link between employee health insurance and contractor compliance. It's even debatable whether contractors were responsible for most of these cited problems. If contractor reliability is the key issue, closer scrutiny of bidders and oversight of construction would seem to be a better solution. Emphasize contractor experience and reliability in awarding county bids, instead of basing it on the lowest dollar bid. That would be healthier for all of Harford County.

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