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A penny for your thoughts

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The debate centered 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 “going 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 Commissioner of Labor and Industry based on rate determinations of applicable prevailing wages made by the US Secretary of Labor under the provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act. That’s a long way of saying that “construction workers should be paid commensurate with their skills and training.”

Seems simple enough. People who work in the construction industry, who show up for work in all weathers, who come home with knee and back pain, but who come back day after day to complete their assigned project, deserve be paid fairly and create a pathway to the middle class. Going wages help create this path, along with benefits (annual and sick leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts) that have been important job attributes since the 1930s. Going wage rates can increase the Government projects cost up to 15%, but a clearer estimate is that implementation would cost less than half that cost, closer to 5-7%. Paying the prevailing wage also has benefits associated with One Fairfax for the community as a whole, including increased protection of workers’ rights and helping workers and their families live in the communities where they work every day.

My colleague, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), felt that implementing prevailing wages is too difficult, too complicated and too expensive. This was not surprising, considering the speaker. What stunned us was that he completed his opposition remarks by saying, “We can’t have everyone in the middle class, otherwise there would be no lower class or upper class.” What?! A Fairfax County elected official has in fact declared officially that he does not support the expansion of the middle class, the hallmark of success for generations of Americans.

Frankly, the problem is that America’s middle class seems to be shrinking. Fewer families are able to buy a home; home ownership provides a way to pass 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” widens, the payment of a prevailing wage on construction contracts, as well as the adoption of policies to pay a “living wage” (currently above $15 an hour) to other service workers is just the right thing to do. Eight members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed. The change to the current wage order passed with a vote of 8 yes (Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik, who supported the change, is on maternity leave); 1 no (Herrity).

Too hard? Too complicated? Too expensive? It can be difficult and complicated too. In the long run, giving people the opportunity to succeed doesn’t cost a lot. In fact, it may be the smartest investment we can make.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. It can be emailed to [email protected]