Ohio goes after prevailing wage crooks

CLEVELAND — On June 4, Marc Dann, Ohio’s new attorney general, announced an enforcement program targeting contractors who violate Ohio’s prevailing wage law.

“We’re going to aggressively pursue this strategy in the future,” Dann said in announcing a settlement of $452,855 in back wages owed to employees of 19 subcontractors, and $113,755 in fines against the contractors for violation of Ohio’s prevailing wage law.

The case arose during a $50 million cleanup of industrial sediment in the Ashtabula River. A lawsuit, filed on behalf the 117 employees who were due back wages, was initiated by Ashtabula Laborers Local 245.

Robert Kennedy, superintendent of the Ohio Commerce Department’s Wage and Hour Division, said investigators found companies paid workers $10 to $15 an hour, when the prevailing wage is $28.

Dann held a news conference to stress his seriousness about enforcement, assigning six attorneys “to get the job done.”

“When it becomes cheaper to cheat, there’s no incentive to comply with the law,” he said.

Loree Soggs, executive secretary of the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council, described Dann’s pledge to enforce the prevailing wage measure as an “unbelievable change in climate.”

“The penalties are the first time since 1990 that the state has levied fines against a project in which workers did not receive prevailing wages,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was at that time that Ohio’s government was taken over by Republicans, led by the election of Gov. George Voinovich.

Before that, under Gov. Richard Celeste, a Democrat, the Commerce Department’s labor division had 35 inspectors and four attorneys working on prevailing wages. Half the inspectors were members of trade unions. Over $1 million a year was being collected in back wages due construction workers, with fines levied against contractors breaking the law. Criminal prosecution was being pressed in the courts against two of the worst habitual violators.

The Voinovich administration, upon taking office, immediately fired the union inspectors and the attorneys. That’s why no penalties were levied “since 1990.” In fact, there has been little or no enforcement since that time.

But enforcement of labor laws by the new administration will not go unchallenged. Pro-corporate legislators like state Sen. Larry Mumpers, who have already eliminated schools and highways from the Ohio prevailing wage law, said, “If we do it without prevailing wage cheaper, we ought to get out of it. If it were up to me, I’d get rid of prevailing wage.”

The battle goes on, but the “unbelievable change in climate” shows workers can win when they and their unions are united in common cause and struggle.