City rejects lowest-bidding contractor over concerns about labor practices

Glen Burnie company sought job of upgrading Patapsco wastewater plant

July 08, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The city's Board of Estimates decided yesterday against awarding a $5.7 million electrical contract to a Glen Burnie company after union officials raised concerns about the company's labor practices.

Primo Electric Co. was the lowest bidder on a city contract to upgrade aging electrical equipment at the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, which collects and treats 63 million gallons daily. The five-member board's unanimous action to reject Primo's offer forces the city to seek new bids for the contract.

Baltimore Public Works Director George L. Winfield, a board member, warned that such action would risk electrical failures at the plant that could cause sewage spills.

"It's a gamble," Winfield said.

It's a gamble that Mayor Martin O'Malley elected to take. He said emergency repair contracts could be awarded to address any "unlikely breakdowns" at the facility but that he wanted to heed union officials who accused Primo of violating local wage rules, state apprenticeship regulations and federal labor laws.

"Why do we want to reward someone" for such actions, O'Malley said. "The safest, most prudent course is to reject all bids."

Disappointed by vote

Robert Wilson, president of Primo Electric, said he was disappointed by the decision.

"We look forward to rebidding the project," Wilson said. "We found no substance to the union's protest."

James L. Correll, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, formally objected to the board's awarding the contract to Primo. He was supported yesterday by Ron DeJuliis, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37 and a political ally of O'Malley.

At the center of union objections is Primo's failure to pay overtime wages to its workers on a recent city schools electrical contract. Primo is a nonunion contractor.

Wilson said the company followed state rules that say overtime must be paid for work beyond 40 hours in a week. The city's overtime rules require overtime to be calculated daily for any work beyond eight hours, said Jerry Gonce, executive director of the city's Wage Commission.

Primo racked up $42,000 in fines for not following the daily overtime rules but settled the dispute last summer with the Wage Commission, agreeing to pay back overtime wages of about $22,000, Gonce said.

Maryland's apprenticeship rules for government contracts for skilled labor also require contractors to use a certain ratio of experienced electricians to apprentices. Primo failed to meet those ratios last year but complied in January, Gonce said.

Hearing pending

A hearing is pending before the National Labor Relations Board over accusations by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 24, that Primo fired an employee for union organizing.

Wilson said he could not discuss the pending personnel issue but that all past concerns raised by the unions have been resolved without litigation or findings of guilt.

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