December 12, 2019

Maine learned at least a couple of things in a recent hearing on the prevailing wage in the construction industry: the people who assembled the natural-gas pipeline through Maine last year made a lot more money than the average construction worker here; and figuring out how much construction workers will make on public projects is an evolving science in Maine.

At issue was the prevailing wage rate set for this year, particularly in regard to work on the widening of the Maine Turnpike. The wage for much of this work might have been $15 to $20 an hour, but because the $1 billion pipeline had its workers, mostly from out of state, earning far more than that, with 150 of them making more than $40 an hour, the survey used to set this year’s wages was considerably higher. If the pipeline is included in the wage determination from last September, pay in 2000 jumps 35 percent over the previous year. (It jumps 12 percent without counting the pipeline rate.) Contractors, not surprisingly, were not happy to see this increase, and neither was the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Workers and their representatives saw things differently. And since no one can remember contractors protesting to the state at times when the prevailing wage remained unusually low in Maine, shouldn’t workers benefit when a bit of good fortune in the form of unusually high rates comes their way?

Commissioner Valerie Landry, in her recent decision, answered that question with a “Yes, but … ” Yes, the prevailing wage should include the influence of the pipeline pay, but not on the MTA project because it largely was not in one of the regions where the pipeline was built. The bureau for the last 14 years has divided Maine into four regions for purposes of determining the prevailing wage, unless certain conditions – such as a low number of workers in a region – required it to use a statewide figure. That apparently changed in August of last year, when the bureau chose to use a statewide wage in all circumstances. This decision may have been defensible, except that there were no rules that allowed the bureau to make it.

In fact, Commissioner Landry observed, there are no rules at all. And perhaps the most useful part of this case is that she ordered rules to be established that would specify how Maine’s prevailing-wage law should be carried out, which ought to avoid the kind of confusion generated in this instance. The rulemaking process is open to public comment and is an ideal opportunity to raise questions about the regions and, for instance, whether the state needs a finer definition of various jobs over the three broad categories – building, highway, heavy/bridge – it now uses.

The remaining question might be how Maine can attract more of those $40-an-hour pipeline jobs.

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