MADISON- The citizens of Wisconsin have seen their fair share of legislative proposals this year that could dramatically change the status quo for our state. From changes to how the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources addresses high capacity wells to new limits on campus free speech, there are always controversial issues being brought up and debated in Madison. While, the biennial budget is still being discussed and negotiated with Majority Party leaders in both houses, important issues such as transportation funding and K-12 education funding need to be negotiated before the budget comes to the Assembly floor.
However, there is another plot being hatched in Madison which has significant implications not only for Wisconsin’s skilled workers but for taxpayers as well. Just this week, I stood beside my colleagues, laborers, and construction groups for a press conference which focused on a new report from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. This report considered the potential repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law, and its impact on our state’s workforce and on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Prevailing wage laws require that construction workers on state projects be paid the wages and benefits prevailing for similar work in the surrounding area. This prevailing wage rate helps prevent a race to the bottom that could lead to a less productive workforce and inferior construction practices.
In 2015, the Legislature ended prevailing wage for local construction projects, and the impact was disastrous for Wisconsin’s workers. Since the repeal came into effect, there has been a 50 percent increase in construction projects going to out-of-state contractors. Now, Republican legislators want to repeal prevailing wage for state projects as well.
According to the Midwest Economic Policy Institute’s research, a construction worker would see their average yearly salary of $51,000 be cut to $29,500, under a prevailing wage repeal. That is a 44 percent cut in pay! This hard-earned income is not only taken away from workers who receive prevailing wage – it has a far-reaching negative multiplier effect for all Wisconsinites. We all know that the economy is interconnected, and cutting income for workers in one area has an impact on all of us. Northern Wisconsin can’t endure a 44 percent wage loss for workers who want to buy homes, raise families, and support local businesses in our communities.
Our workforce is at a crossroads. Now more than ever, we need to protect Wisconsin’s workers and make sure there is ample opportunity for them to succeed in highly skilled trades.
Repealing prevailing wage laws would also invite contractors from out of state to bid on Wisconsin projects. Concerns loom that lower-wage, unskilled, and underperforming out of state construction workers could displace high-skilled Wisconsin workers. Whether it is welding, plumbing, pipe fitting, trench work, operating heavy machinery, rigging, or electrical wiring. These are skilled professions that require skilled workers. When these jobs are done by an unskilled workforce, not only is the safety of the worker in jeopardy, but public safety is threatened as well.
Changes to Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law could have significant ripple effects on our state’s overall economic well-being and could threaten the goal of moving citizens off of safety-net programs and into the workforce. If skilled and productive workers are forced to take a drastic pay cut, they may have no other choice but to look to assistance programs. At the end of the day, if families don’t have disposable income to spend, the overall economy declines and greater strain in placed on safety-net programs. Prevailing wage construction projects, like bridge and school construction are taxpayer funded projects. Wouldn’t taxpayers want highly skilled and in-state workers, like their own family, friends, and neighbors doing the projects?
In all of my legislative listening sessions, budget listening sessions, roundtable discussions, and other events that I have held in the district since being in office, not once has anyone ever said to me: “What are you doing to make sure workers in other states have jobs in ours?” Displacing Wisconsin’s workforce is simply wrong, and I know my constituents in the 74th Assembly District feel the same way.
If you have any interest in following this topic or monitoring any proposal that will undermine our state’s workforce, please do not hesitate to contact my office. My most important job is listening to you. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns about issues relating to state government. I can be reached at 888-534-0074 or Rep.Meyers@legis.wisconsin.gov.
Beth Meyers represents the 74th Assembly District of Wisconsin