Portland votes to enforce and track wage laws

The Portland City Council voted unanimously May 7 for an ordinance aimed at upholding prevailing wage laws on all public works projects the city is involved with.

"It's a good starting place," said Wally Mehrens, executive secretary of the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council, testifying in support of the responsible contractor (or best practices) ordinance. "The key is to make sure that if you make rules - that everybody has to live up to them, and if they don't, there is a consequence."

Labor unions initially sought to include "more teeth" in the ordinance, teeth such as requiring that a "responsible contractor" also provide training programs for apprentices, obey all labor laws, and remain neutral if workers try to organize a union. "It doesn't meet all the criteria of the AFL-CIO's resolution on responsible contractors, but it's still a major step forward," Mehrens said.

"What this is about is just making sure we're following the existing law," said Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who introduced the ordinance - which passed 5-0.

The ordinance stems from a review of city bureaus several years ago which found "a lack of consistency" between departments when it came to handling prevailing wage issues on city-funded public works projects.

The Portland Bureau of Purchases had developed a "best practices" plan to guide the various bureaus, but those recommendations were implemented inconsistently, or not at all.

Prevailing wage is the wage that prevails in a given industry or geographic area and is used as an index to determine how much a worker in a specific craft should be paid in wages and fringe benefits. Prevailing wage surveys are conducted and published annually by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).

Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner, who testified in favor of the ordinance, said his department was eager to work with the city to make sure all workers "are paid a decent and fair wage within the community." Gardner is a former vice president of Portland International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48.

Keith Edwards, an international vice president of the IBEW and a former business manager of Local 48, said he has benefited from working prevailing wage jobs since graduating from the union's apprenticeship and training program 33 years ago.

"Some would say I'm an anomaly," Edwards testified. "I'm a worker. An electrician, and I'm blessed to be a union electrician."

Edwards, a former president of the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said higher wages and better benefits provide workers the opportunity "to buy houses, buy cars and pay taxes."

Several minority contractors and members of the black community testified against the ordinance. JoAnn Bowman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce said the ordinance provided no assurance that people of color or women would be hired by the city for public works projects. "In fact, it does the opposite. It would close out the 3 percent of minority construction contractors that have found a way through on-the-job training with their employees to be able to hire people of color in low-income communities, give them the skills and then have them available for prevailing wage jobs," said Bowman, a former state representative from Northeast Portland.

She also objected to the Bureau of Purchasing as overseer of the ordinance. "That bureau has a poor record of contracting with minority contractors," she said.

Minority contractor James Posey strongly opposed the ordinance, claiming the city's support of prevailing wage laws and the ordinance to uphold such laws was "designed to limit minority participation on city contracts." He said prevailing wage laws were "racist in origin" and have been used historically to "keep people of color from working on jobs that would pay a decent wage."

Andre Baugh of Group AGB, which works with minority, women, disadvantaged and emerging businesses, suggested that minorities have a role in developing the methods that the Bureau of Purchasing uses to collect data and that part of the tracking process include statistics on who complained, what the area and type of complaints are, and when complaints are made. Baugh supported the ordinance, saying it was "neutral to minority interests."

Francesconi expressed confusion about some of the testimony, stating that the ordinance didn't create any new obligations. "There is no preference for union contractors in any of this," he said.

The commissioner said some (union officials) wanted apprenticeship and training language attached to the ordinance, "but I wouldn't go there, and the reason I wouldn't go there is because I do think that right now that would have created a barrier for minority contractors." Commissioner Erik Sten supported the ordinance as written, but said he, too, was distressed by some of the opposing testimony. "It says to me, we don't have an unspoken problem, we have a very spoken problem," he said.

Sten explained that concerns raised by minority contractors were a separate issue, but he vowed to help address them in the future. He suggested possibly a separate ordinance be considered that would track contractors' and bidders' compliance with equal opportunity laws before the city awards contracts.

"Basically, [the responsible contractor ordinance] just says we need to enforce what the state and federal law says. Period. End of story," said Mayor Vera Katz.

The ordinance does not impose new prevailing wage requirements, it simply sets up a procedure that allows the city to monitor and implement existing prevailing wage laws.

The city now will start tracking complaints it receives, refer them to BOLI for investigation and keep data on their disposition. Each year the data will be reviewed and presented to the City Council.

The ordinance specifies that only "material violations" would support a finding of non-responsibility. Material violations means violations that have such "real importance or great consequences that they indicate a lack of integrity or a lack of satisfactory past performance." If violations occur, the ordinance mandates that the city "shall determine ... whether the bidder took corrective action."

City officials said they do not intend to use technical or inadvertent prevailing wage violations as a basis to disqualify otherwise responsible contractors from doing business with the city. In fact, the ordinance directs the city to assist contractors in complying with prevailing wage requirements through training of both contractors and city staff.

May 16, 2003 issue

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