Bronx senator, union reignite prevailing wage fight

Sen. Luis Sepúlveda and Local 79 are hosting a rally today

Sen. Luis Sepúlveda
Sen. Luis Sepúlveda

A Bronx senator and union laborers are helping to revive the fight to change wage rules for construction projects receiving public financing.

Sen. Luis Sepúlveda is teaming up with Local 79 to push for amendments to and passage of legislation that would require more projects to pay construction workers prevailing wages. Prevailing wages are determined by the state Department of Labor, which bases the rates on union wages.

Sepúlveda and Local 79 are holding a rally Thursday afternoon in the Bronx in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly member Harry Bronson, which expands the definition of public works to incorporate all projects financed in whole or in part by public money.

Sepúlveda is seeking to include an incentive for minority- and women-owned businesses to help cover the cost of higher wages. He also wants to incorporate language that ensures workers receive these wages regardless of their immigration status.

“I made a commitment to meet with stakeholders in order to make important updates to the bill,” Ramos said in a statement. “We’re working diligently to incorporate changes as those conversations continue.”

The bill gained momentum during 2019’s legislative session, but didn’t make it past committee in either the Senate or Assembly. That version of the bill included carve-outs for projects with at least 75 percent affordable housing for households earning 60 percent of area median income, certain nonprofits and for developments receiving the tax break previously known as 421a. It’s not yet clear what form the bill will take this session.

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“Latino and Hispanic laborers are often the most vulnerable to wage theft, exploitation, injury, and even death on construction sites,” Steve Andujar, a business agent at Local 79, said in a statement. “The public-works bill will advance racial justice and economic justice for Hispanic and Latino workers and other workers of color.”

New York’s constitution defines public works as state-financed projects. But private projects that receive tax breaks and other types of public funding typically aren’t required to pay prevailing wages. Legislators have repeatedly tried to change this, but such efforts fell short in 2015, 2018 and again last year. The Assembly approved a version of the measure in 2018, but it died in the Senate.

In the final days of last year’s legislative session, the state Assembly introduced an amended version of the bill, which included a list of exemptions, such as hospitals and nonprofit colleges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also reportedly pushed for a temporary carveout for New York City — a year-long exemption from the law to give local leaders a chance to plan for its impact. Another version of the measure proposed requiring prevailing wages based on region and level of public subsidies received.

Last year’s fight was largely led by the state chapter of the Building and Construction Trades Council. Though the governor didn’t mention prevailing wage as a priority in his State of the State address this month, the New York chapter of the open-shop group Associated Builders and Contractors responded to the speech with a pre-emptive statement in opposition.

“We cannot and should not see any effort to expand prevailing wage requirements to private construction that receives support from New York State or local governments,” the group said in a statement. “It’s time for our elected leaders to make the critical investments and not place political barriers in the way of our progress.”