In America, we’re brought up to believe that if you work hard enough, you can earn enough money to raise a family and have a good life. Generations of Americans without a college degree have done exactly that with a job in the construction industry, but that traditional pathway to the middle class is shrinking. As membership in construction unions decline, it’s getting harder and harder for working families to make ends meet.
A report just released by the University of California Berkeley Labor Center details the situation. Approximately 39 percent of construction worker families nationwide are forced to enroll in one or more government safety net programs – with a staggering price tag of $28 billion each year to state and federal taxpayers.
Researchers attribute their findings to “low pay, wage theft and illegal employment practices.” That’s because declining unionization in the construction industry has created a void in the enforcement of labor standards. When strong unions and sufficient industry regulation are in place, even nonunion companies must respect union-set industry standards or risk losing their employees to better opportunities. Without unions to advocate for workers, low-road employers are able to cut corners and pocket more profits at the expense of taxpayers.
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Fundamental changes in the construction industry have created a dynamic much different from previous generations. The industry is now largely investor-driven, meaning the expectations of investors and developers drive project decision-making – even when they are far removed from the realities of a construction site or construction workers. Today’s general contractors are larger, more mobile and sophisticated in how they manage labor on their sites. They are insulated from accountability and powerful enough to prevent legislative changes or effective enforcement.
Wage theft is an enormous problem, with more than $8.4 billion lost each year. Wage theft happens when workers aren’t paid all or part of the wages they have earned, leaving them with the awful choice of complaining and risking their job, or going along with it and taking what they can get.
Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders deserve credit for cracking down on wage theft. A new law will hold contractors responsible for wage theft that happens on their job site. It’s a start, but more needs to be done.
We have to work together to keep the pathway to the middle class open for men and women in the construction industry. That means government, law enforcement, organized labor and industry leaders all playing a role. If you’re willing to work hard enough, you deserve a chance at a better life.
Chris Austin is Western New York business manager of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.