Unions protest wages on Providence Housing project in Irondequoit - Catholic Courier

Unions protest wages on Providence Housing project in Irondequoit

GATES — Several union representatives protested in front of the diocesan Pastoral Center for a few weeks in July and August and at Irondequoit’s St. Salome Parish in June to spotlight a disagreement over the level of wages paid to workers at a construction project on the St. Salome campus.

Providence Housing Development Corp., an affiliate of diocesan Catholic Charities, is building 39 affordable one- and two-bedroom apartments and six attached patio homes on the campus of the former St. Salome School, convent and rectory.

The St. Salome project is scheduled to be completed by March 2009, and the first units will be available this fall.

The $8.6 million project has received funding from the state’s Housing Trust Fund, the Town of Irondequoit’s Community Development Block Grant program, the Monroe County HOME program and the federal low-income housing tax-credit program.

The unions contend that the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 and related federal legislation require the payment of "prevailing wages" to workers on projects that receive federal funding. "Prevailing wages" typically are much higher than the alternative "market wages" and often also include funding for such fringe benefits as health insurance, pensions and paid holidays.

However, Monica McCullough, executive director of Providence Housing, said her agency has followed all requirements on wages.

"There are different requirements on different sources of money, but we’ve met these requirements," McCullough said. "What we’ve spent the money on has not triggered the Davis-Bacon requirements."

Wages are set and paid by the individual subcontractors hired by Providence’s general contractor, LeCesse Construction, she said. If prevailing wages are required to be paid on a job, Providence’s contract with its general contractor will stipulate that up front, and the general contractor is responsible for keeping track of subcontractors’ payroll to ensure that prevailing wages are paid, she said.

According to a January 2008 comparison of market wages and prevailing wages by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Governmental Research, median market wages ranged from $16.50 for construction laborers, who received an additional $5.77 in benefits, to $23.49 for cement masons and concrete finishers, who received an extra $8.21 in benefits. Prevailing wages for construction laborers were $21.46 plus $12.56 in benefits — or 52.8 percent more than the market wage. Prevailing wages for cement masons and concrete finishers were $28.56 and $15.13 in benefits — 37.8 percent higher than the market wage.

"At market wages, construction labor costs upstate (the Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany labor areas) are 9 percent higher than comparison communities (nationwide)," the center said. "At prevailing wages, construction labor costs upstate are 57 percent higher than comparison communities."

The center’s report concluded that higher wages and higher construction costs could lead nonprofit organizations to scale back or forego projects. Prevailing-wage requirements also could put New York cities at a disadvantage in competing for projects against other cities across the country, the center found.

A representative with general contractor LeCesse Construction did not return several calls for comment on wages paid to workers at the St. Salome project.

Tom Stephens, business development specialist and organizer for Local 832, the International Union of Operating Engineers, said construction workers who were asked about wages at the St. Salome site said they were being paid market wages ranging from $10 to $15 an hour. He added that some workers must purchase benefits out of their gross pay and that he believes many construction workers earning market wages are living in poverty because construction work is seasonal and weather-dependent.

"In some cases, they are not paid enough to support their families," Stephens said.

McCullough, Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor and director of legal services for the diocese, and Irondequoit Town Supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman met with union organizers to discuss the unions’ complaints, McCullough and union officials said.

Unsatisfied by the outcome of this discussion, union workers protested at the Irondequoit construction site for several weeks — using large inflatable rats as props — before moving to the Pastoral Center, said Stephens, who noted that the protest also was supported by the International Union of Laborers Local 435.

Diocesan spokesman Doug Mandelaro reiterated the diocesan administration’s belief that the project’s funding did not trigger federal prevailing-wage rules.

"Paying prevailing wages would be, in effect, devastating for the project," he said. "It would not be feasible to build the project."

He also noted that Providence currently is planning a $4-million project for the area that will pay prevailing wages, and that the agency also is considering a second project in the City of Rochester that would pay prevailing wages.

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