Senators want wage law suspended in disasters

The year after Missouri was brought to a standstill by a blizzard, pummeled by tornadoes and swamped in places by overflowing rivers, Republican lawmakers are pushing to change how much workers would be paid to rebuild the state after future disasters.

The prevailing wage is a rate of pay set by the state’s labor department that cities, counties and other governmental entities must pay for construction projects. It is usually higher than the state minimum wage, and it varies by occupation and location. In Missouri, the pay rate is calculated using voluntary wage surveys sent in by labor unions and private contractors.

As they have for several years, Republicans have pushed proposals to change or repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, arguing it unfairly raises costs to local taxpayers, particularly in rural areas.

But in the wake of last year’s deadly EF5 tornado in Joplin, prevailing wage critics have this year added a new component to their argument, saying the prevailing wage is particularly burdensome to cities and counties rocked by disaster.

One proposal, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, has carried the new idea to the Senate floor. In addition to changing how prevailing wage rates are calculated and to what jobs the rates apply, the measure would allow the entire prevailing wage law to be suspended for projects “undertaken as a result of the disaster” in any county that receives federal disaster aid.

Senate Democrats have stalled debate on that legislation, arguing Missouri is hit by natural disasters so often the new law could at times effectively suspend prevailing wage laws in most or all parts of the state.

“It could eliminate prevailing wage, based on historical knowledge, for every county in the state,” said Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, during debate on the measure.

Missouri has frequently been the subject of major disaster aid, receiving 53 such declarations going back to 1957, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

More than a dozen of those declarations have come since the beginning of 2007.

Brian Houston, a communications professor at the University of Missouri, said disaster declarations have been on the rise in recent years, as states increasingly look to Washington for help in sharing the costs of recovery.

“I think that when you have significant disasters, governors are usually quick to seek federal aid,” he said. “I don’t think that they hesitate in doing so when there’s a disaster.”

After severe storms hit the state in January, for example, every county was eligible for federal disaster aid, FEMA records show. Several counties in the state remain eligible for federal money after last year’s springtime tornadoes and flooding.

Mayer said the provision is not a veiled attempt to repeal the prevailing wage law for the entire state, though he did note 18 states have no prevailing wage law.

“My goal is not to do away with prevailing wage,” Mayer said. “This is what we started with. We knew that when we filed that that would not be what passes out of the body.”

His sentiment was echoed by members of Joplin’s city council and its legislative delegation interviewed by the Associated Press.

“Nobody wants anyone to work for slave wages,” said Joplin City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Bill Scearce. “We just want fair market value for labor in Joplin.”

If Mayer’s measure clears the Senate, it goes to the House. The proposal could also be attached to other, larger bills that lawmakers will try to pass in the session’s final weeks.

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