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By Chris Opfer
The Trump administration won’t try to water down prevailing wage protections for construction and other workers as part of its $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said March 14.
“I obviously think this bill needs to be done on a bipartisan basis and you’re telling me that without that protection it would be hard to achieve,” Chao said in response to a question from Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Peters asked Chao if she would agree to “protect” prevailing wage rate requirements on government projects as a “critical component” of any infrastructure spending measure.
Acosta said he agreed that the “bill needs to go forward on a bipartisan basis.”
President Donald Trump’s infrastructure proposal seeks to expand public-private partnerships on road, railway, port, and school building and repair projects. That has raised some questions about whether the Davis-Bacon Act, requiring builders on public projects to pay a prevailing wage set by the Labor Department, applies to those new initiatives. Prevailing wages are as much as 22 percent above market rates, according to studies.
Any infrastructure spending plan would have to be approved by Congress. It would need the support of at least 60 lawmakers to avoid a filibuster in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a slim 51-49 majority.
The Trump plan remains in limbo over disagreements about how to pay for new infrastructure projects, including whether to increase the gas tax.
Acosta also touted a new Labor Department initiative that will allow businesses to self-report wage and hour violations. He said the program is intended to reduce the cost of DOL minimum wage and overtime investigations and streamline the payment of back wages to workers.
The six-month trial program will allow employers who are not currently being investigated for wage violations to report potential violations to the Labor Department. Those employers can then pay back wages to workers who waive their rights to a private lawsuit for any violations connected to the same specific time period.
Formal government investigations and private litigation offer “little incentive for employers to come forward,” Acosta told the committee. “By bypassing the litigation system,” Acosta said the DOL “hopes that the dollars go back to the employees much more quickly.”
The department in the George W. Bush administration allowed self-reporting under a similar program. The DOL withdrew that initiative during the Obama administration, shifting instead to targeted investigations in industries the department said were most likely to see wage and hour violations.
The Labor Department has recovered more than $1.2 billion in back wages for unpaid minimum wages and overtime in the last five years, according to the department.
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