- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - After a political fight left West Virginia without a minimum wage for contractors on public construction projects for months, new rates put in place Wednesday will decrease pay for most of those jobs only slightly, state officials said.

WorkForce West Virginia says 58.4 percent of wages for 28 various job categories are lower than last year, while 41.6 percent are higher. The agency used Kanawha County to compare year-over-year changes.

The prevailing wage sets a minimum pay level for state and local government construction jobs, ranging from painters and electricians to boilermakers and elevator mechanics. Federally funded projects, including the bulk of highway work, aren’t affected because those are subject to a federal prevailing wage.

After the new state prevailing wage came out Wednesday, Republican legislative leaders continued contending that the pay rates are inflated. They repeated criticisms that Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration allowed the rates to stay high by relying primarily on a survey.

Tomblin’s administration and union contractors said the process was thorough and data-driven. Republican legislative leaders and non-union contractors remained critical.

“I would say that these numbers accurately reflect the going rate of wages for people who do this type of work,” said Jeff Green, WorkForce West Virginia research director.

Republican Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he wasn’t surprised by the new rates.

“This is what we thought we would see after WorkForce adopted a flawed methodology,” Cole said in an emailed statement. “What it appears this survey basically asked was, ‘What were last year’s prevailing wage rates?’”

WorkForce West Virginia surveyed about 5,000 contractors about what they pay for the type of jobs covered by prevailing wage, and about 74 percent responded. About 46.6 percent of wages had less than a 5 percent change; 68.8 percent changed less than 10 percent; and 87.5 percent changed less than 20 percent.

Cole criticized WorkForce for only using 15 percent of the data it received to calculate the wages. However, Green said that most of the survey respondents did not perform the work that prevailing wage normally covers.

He said there were only about 695 nonresidential construction and civil construction companies in the state in 2014.

The changes come as Republicans consider scrapping the state prevailing wage altogether once the Legislature convenes again in January.

The repeal was the GOP’s initial plan in the last legislative session. But during negotiations, Republicans backed away and instead tasked WorkForce West Virginia with recalculating the wage with the help of state university economists by July 1.

Lawmakers refused to extend that deadline to September 30, which the Tomblin administration said was necessary. Instead, the prevailing wage disappeared in July and was reintroduced Wednesday. No major state contracts went out to bid in that timeframe.

A Republican-led committee voted against the deadline delay in June. Republican lawmakers said the administration was catering to unions, and issued subpoenas for records about how the wage was calculated.

WorkForce said its new wages stem 79 percent from survey data, and 21 percent from federal data that Republicans prefer.

Affiliated Construction Trades of West Virginia Executive Director Steve White called the rates a “pretty darn good” first try under a new law.

The non-union Associated Builders and Contractors of West Virginia criticized the rates, saying they would remain inflated.

Some wages did change dramatically - for example, insulation workers in Kanawha county will make about $24 an hour instead of $48, including fringe benefits; a marble finisher will get about $47 hourly instead of $37.

A new cap that eliminates the prevailing wage for projects using $500,000 or less in public money has been in effect for months.

Eighteen states don’t have a prevailing wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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