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Another Voice: Fair and safe public construction projects should concern us all

By Anna Falicov

As summer nears midpoint, the construction season in Western New York is in full swing. The harsh winter and regular wear and tear mean that roads must be repaved, sewer lines upgraded and bridges rebuilt before the next winter arrives.

Western New Yorkers should be grateful to the workers who work long hours, often subject to grueling heat and noxious fumes, to ensure safe infrastructure and clean water. It’s also worth a moment to ask the following questions: Who is the contractor employing these workers, the company awarded thousands if not millions of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars for public work? Is that contractor hiring local workers and providing adequate training? Is it paying workers what they’re owed? Is it providing a safe work environment? Is it charging a fair price to you, the taxpayer, for the work performed?

Here at the New York Foundation for Fair Contracting, our job is to ask those questions and find the answers. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to “leveling the playing field” in public works, we’re here as a watchdog to ensure that contractors awarded public works are responsible companies that play by the rules and deliver a high-quality product. We know that when contractors cheat, they gain an unfair competitive advantage at the expense of responsible contractors and the community at large.

Given the high volume of public works contracts being awarded and performed this time of year, we have our work cut out for us. One aspect of our work is to provide information to municipalities and other public owners about the profile and past performance of the companies bidding public work.

With this information in hand, we encourage the municipalities to exercise their legal right to award the contract to the “lowest responsible bidder,” not just the lowest bidder. We also work to ensure compliance with apprenticeship training requirements where they exist. Apprenticeship requirements on public works incentivize and reward contractors that invest in worker training and the next generation of skilled tradesmen and women, all without costing the taxpayer a dime.

Finally, we investigate wage theft and unsafe work site claims. We are in close communication with administrative agencies to ensure workers receive the pay they’re owed, and come home healthy and injury-free to their families each night.

So this summer, when you’re driving past pylons in the streets or watching a crane erect a piece of steel on a bridge, think about the contractors and the workers performing the job. If anything seems out of place, or you have a question about the project, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

Anna Falicov is general counsel to the Western New York Foundation for Fair Contracting.