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WI Prevailing Wage event

Lively Panel Launches Worker Institute’s New Prevailing Wage Report

Prevailing wage laws protect New Yorkers from a race to the bottom, panelists said during the launch of the new report by Cornell ILR’s The Worker Institute on Sept. 12. The event brought together experts within academia, labor, management and government to assess the impact of prevailing wages on workers, contractors and the New York economy.

“The key conclusion that we reached is that based on the observable differences between firms and the benefits that they offer, it should save developers money on prevailing wage jobs to work with union firms,” said Dr. Rusty Weaver, director of research at the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab. “If everything else is equal, we should see an advantage by going with the union firm, and that’s in turn, going to have that upward spiraling effect that we talked about, putting upward pressure on wages and standards throughout the industry.”

Union representatives, contractors, construction workers, government employees, and researchers filled every seat in the auditorium, amassing excitement for the report and the ensuing panel discussion. 

“I believe that most of our contractors are going to welcome [prevailing wage laws],” said David Caraballoso, vice president of the New York City District Council of Carpenters. Caraballoso spoke frankly about his own experience on union and non-union job sites, emphasizing how prevailing wage laws touch every aspect of society. “It really is a boon to your neighbor, it’s a boon to the government because there’s a bigger tax base, there’s less strain on affordable housing, less strain on social services. This is why it’s so important we have a prevailing wage, and that it’s actually enforced.”

Aislinn S. McGuire, vice chair of the Contractors' Association of Greater New York, joined the panel, adding that “there’s perception and there’s reality. If the perception is that regardless of what [experts] say, union contractors are more expensive, then that’s a perception we have to overcome. This report, the follow-up, and the information we are talking about is going to be critical to changing that perception…Hopefully, we’ll start to see this domino effect, and add the enforcement component to that; Hopefully, we have a perfect storm.” 

The importance of enforcement was championed by panelist Alvin Bragg, who serves as the Manhattan District Attorney. Bragg pledged his continued support to investigate and prosecute violations of prevailing rate as wage theft and hold employers responsible. Notably, DA Bragg said that his office will go after small and large wage theft cases. Bragg also committed to working with members of the City Comptroller’s office who were also in attendance at the rollout of the research paper.

The panel agreed that the strengthening of prevailing rate laws in New York leads to a healthier society. Prevailing wage laws ensure training new generations of workers in desperately needed high-skilled trades - trades that build the city’s dams, bridges, tunnels and buildings. 

Following a productive question and answer session with the audience, the Executive Director of  The Worker Institute, Patricia Campos-Medina, offered some closing remarks. 

“In 2022, there were 751 construction-related accidents. That’s 751 families impacted in New York City. 551 debilitating injuries. That’s 551 workers injured right now at home collecting worker’s compensation. 22 fatalities. 22 deaths. 17 of those deaths were in non-union shops, so when we think about why this research matters, it’s because it impacts people’s lives.

The report, entitled Building Responsible Projects in New York City: Assessing the Impact of Prevailing Wage Benefits on Workers, Contractors, and the New York City Economy epitomizes Cornell ILR’s commitment to the action research method, characterized by simultaneously researching issues and proposing solutions. 

“This is not about the union boss, this is not just about numbers,” said Campos-Medina. “It’s actually about people’s lives…The work that we do to advance worker’s rights is to save worker’s lives. So, thank you all!”

Find a recording of the event here.