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Another Voice

Prevailing wage mandate would hurt minority construction workers

By Edward Jackson Jr.

New York’s construction industry was booming in the early 21st century. The economy was strong and investment in construction projects were pouring in – both up and downstate. Then came the Great Recession.

Between 2009 and 2010, New York State lost 2.2. million jobs – nearly 15 percent of the entire workforce. As the years went on, however, the country recovered from one of the most egregious economic calamities to date, and so too did New York State’s construction industry – downstate, that is. While employment in New York State’s construction industry grew 30 percent between 2010 and 2018, New York City accounted for nearly half of the construction jobs added between that time.

The same doesn’t hold true for the post-recession, upstate construction workforce narrative – most notably in Buffalo and the surrounding areas. In fact, construction employment has not returned to the 2009 pre-recession level in 20 of the state’s 64 counties, including Erie County. The reality is that Buffalo’s construction sector, which has among the lowest average salaries in New York State’s construction sector, is struggling.

That’s why it’s curious to see lawmakers in Albany once again discussing the possibility of expanding a prevailing wage mandate in New York’s construction industry.

The prevailing wage mandate will have significant cost impacts throughout the state, and Buffalo’s construction will most definitely feel the ramifications. According to a 2017 Empire Center study, the prevailing wage mandate will increase construction costs by 20 percent or more in the Buffalo metro area.

Expanding the prevailing wage mandate would also incentivize the hiring of a construction unionized labor force – most of which is white – at the expense of the non-unionized, racially diverse workforce. The proposal would mandate unionized contractors be awarded work for more publicly supported developments than what is currently required, in turn blocking smaller, minority-owned contractors, workers and business owners from getting work they otherwise would.

That’s why the 400 Foundation, an ecumenical nonprofit fighting for economic justice in the development and construction industries, has partnered with community and faith leaders from across New York State like myself to stand up and speak out against the this regressive mandate.

We recommend that the governor consider the ramifications of this policy for upstate, minority, non-unionized construction workers, listen closely to the voices of faith leaders who represent communities of color, and not approve the existing proposal until there are public hearings to discuss how minorities can be better served.

Edward Jackson Jr. is pastor at Friendship Baptist Church, Buffalo.

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