The debate focused on a county ordinance to add prevailing wage language for work performed under county construction contracts. In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly had passed HB833/SB8, which allowed state agencies and localities to require payment of the “prevailing wage” in public construction contracts. Governor Northam signed the bill into law, with a delayed effective date of May 1, 2021. The prevailing wage is determined by the Commonwealth’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry on the basis of applicable prevailing wage rate determinations made by the U.S. Secretary of Labor under the provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act. That’s a long way of saying “construction workers should be paid wages commensurate with their skills and training.”
Seems simple enough. People who work in the construction industry, who show up for work in all kinds of weather, who go home with sore knees and sore backs, but return day after day to complete the assigned project, deserve to be paid a fair wage, and create a pathway to the middle class. Prevailing wages help create that pathway, along with benefits (annual and sick leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts) that have been important attributes for labor since the 1930s. Prevailing wage rates can increase the cost of government projects by as much as 15 percent, but a clearer estimate is that implementation would cost less than half that, closer to five to seven percent. Paying prevailing wage also has One Fairfax-related benefits to the community at-large, including increased protection of workers’ rights and helping workers and their families live in the communities where they toil every day.
My colleague, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), opined that prevailing wage implementation is too hard, too complicated, and too expensive. That wasn’t surprising, considering the speaker. What stunned us was that he topped off his remarks in opposition by saying “We can’t have everyone in the middle class, or there’d be no lower class or upper class.” What?! An elected official in Fairfax County actually said, on the record, that he doesn’t support expanding the middle class, the hallmark of success for generations of Americans.
Frankly, the problem has been that the American middle class seems to be shrinking. Fewer families are able to purchase a home; homeownership provides a way to pass along wealth from generation to generation. Surveys of housing availability in the region reveal that there is a huge gap, the “missing middle.” As the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” grows wider, paying a prevailing wage on construction contracts, as well as adopting policies to pay a “living wage” (currently in excess of $15 per hour) to other service workers simply is the right thing to do. Eight members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed. The prevailing wage ordinance change was adopted by a vote of 8 yeas (Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik, who supported the change, is on maternity leave); 1 nay (Herrity).
Too hard? Too complicated? Too expensive? It may be hard, and complicated, too. In the long run, providing opportunity for people to succeed is not expensive. In fact, it may be the smartest investment we can make.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]