Workers: Sandy jobs should pay at local wage rates

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Construction industry representatives Thursday urged state and federal officials to ensure Sandy-related cleanup and construction contracts pay local prevailing wages, not lower regional or national rates.

About 100 industry and union members, along with officials from the state, counties and local municipalities, who attended a U.S. Labor Department forum in Farmingdale also demanded that contracts for post-Sandy work be awarded to local firms.

Those in attendance identified two key concerns -- some local municipalities are paying state prevailing wages while others are not, and large contracts are being awarded to out-of-state firms while many Long Island construction crews are out of work.

U.S. labor law requires prevailing wages be applied to federal or federally assisted construction work. But Matt Meyer, supervisor for the New York State Bureau of Public Works, said clearing debris is not regarded as construction work under the federal law.

Prevailing wage is the hourly wage paid to the majority of workers in a particular area.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this month awarded a $92 million debris-removal contract that is subject to federal service contract provisions -- not local labor law. Environmental Chemical Corp. of California is paying wages significantly lower than those on Long Island, U.S. Labor Department officials, contractors and union representatives said.

Tim Helm, chief of the department's government contracts enforcement branch, said his division is investigating.

The Labor Department is committed to partnering with local contractors and unions "for the long haul on what will be a multiyear rebuilding journey" involving billions of dollars in contracts, Helm said.

Suffolk County Department of Labor Commissioner Sammy Chu urged towns, villages and other municipalities without prevailing wage provisions to put them in place so local workers will be protected.

"It's the right thing to do given this disaster has brought a serious housing crush to both Nassau and Suffolk," Chu said. "The last thing we can afford right now is to give up precious hotel and motel rooms to out-of-state workers when our own workforce is hurting."

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) told the forum the New York labor department had advised his office any FEMA grants administered through a state agency will have to comply with state prevailing wage laws.

Marc Herbst, head of the Long Island Contractors Association, said differences in wage laws among municipalities could lead to some workers being underpaid.

"We're looking to avoid a messy approach where there's one rate of reimbursement in, say, Oyster Bay, and another in Long Beach, but FEMA will only pay what it pays and the contractor is left short," he said.

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