Think tank faults wage rules in area flood cleanup

| The Daily Gazette

Some workers earned more than $43 per hour taking part in a post-disaster cleanup project during the summer of 2012, according to data gathered by an Albany-based think tank.

A total of 156 people in the Capital Region earned about $1.4 million during the 90-day campaign to clear debris left in and along waterways by floods in the late summer of 2011, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy Inc.

Local agencies recruited unemployed workers in the disaster area after the U.S. Dept. of Labor earmarked $16.1 million in National Emergency Grant funding for New York state to deal with the effects of tropical storms Irene and Lee.

The Neighborhood Rebuilding Corps. project organizers gathered applications for work sites after appealing to residents faced with tons of trees, tires and other debris left on their properties.

The data show workers in Albany, Montgomery, Schenectady and Schoharie counties put in a collective 36,268 hours of work during 2012, some of them at an hourly pay rate of $46.67.

Roughly $908,900 of the grant money was directed towards 60 workers and agencies coordinating the project for the Schoharie Creek alone.

The study results lead E.J. McMahon, founder of the fiscally conservative think tank, to wonder how much more might have been done if the program weren’t tied to a “prevailing wage” requirement.

The grant was administered by the state Department of Labor and since it was federal money, participating workers had to be paid the prevailing federal rate for labor.

McMahon said it’s likely the same money could have yielded twice as much work without the prevailing wage requirement.

“The basic argument would be that you could’ve gotten at least two times as much done, and definitely have given temporary employment to more people if you haven’t boxed yourself into paying prevailing wage,” he said.

The effort’s benefits to a hurting populace shouldn’t be questioned, McMahon said — the underemployed residents needed the work.

“The question is not whether they needed help and whether it was appropriate for the government to step in and help. The issue is whether the government did so efficiently. And it did not,” he said.

The Northeast Parent and Child Society coordinated the Schenectady County effort and put 82 people to work during the 2012 season.

The agency tracked numerous projects around the Mohawk River, Schoharie Creek and a park in Glenville, spokesman Eugene White said.

For participants, the project led to instruction on heavy highway construction and OSHA safety training, both of which they carried with them after the project, he said.

“This [program helped] to train the unemployed and put some money in their pocket and send them out in the workforce with more skills,” White said.

He said the agency contacted Schenectady County officials but they weren’t interested in the leftover equipment, like used boots and chain saws, so the gear has been used for other neighborhood projects the agency coordinates, he said.

Some of the work was coordinated through the Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie Counties’ Workforce Development Board, which offered training for qualified workers after the work was done, according to director Gail Breen.

Two of the workers studied the basic carpentry program offered by SUNY-Cobleskill; two others took truck-driving training and received their CDL truck driver’s licenses, Breen said in an e-mail.

All four are now working in those fields, she said.

McMahon said the program’s turnout should prompt state officials to consider their options after the next disaster — one of which is asking the federal government to waive the prevailing wage requirement, as it did following Hurricane Katrina.

“This highlights, in a different way, the problem with the prevailing wage law,” he said.

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