By Donna Edwards
The writer is president of the Maryland State and DC AFL-CIO.
Over the past year, 12 construction workers have come forward alleging they have not been fully compensated for work performed on new school buildings in Prince George’s County. Wage theft is a crime.
The number of lawsuits filed against the lead developer, as well as several subcontractors, is growing as wage theft allegations — including failure to pay overtime, misclassifying employees as 1099 contractors, and failure to pay wages entirely — continue to surface on Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). Many of the workers cheated out of the wages to which they are legally entitled are people of color living, working, and raising their families in Prince George’s County.
Thankfully, a solution preventing wage theft exists in the form of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs).
PLAs are necessary to protect both the investments of taxpayers and establish fair wages and benefit standards for workers. PLAs are a pre-hire agreement unique to the construction industry. They can effectively prevent wage theft and protect hardworking men and women working on a project by ensuring compliance with workplace safety and health laws, bringing order and responsibility to a project, and promoting equal opportunity. PLAs may include local hire requirements, ensuring that Prince George’s County residents get a fair shot to work on construction projects funded with their taxpayer dollars. Local hire rules directly invest in good jobs for Prince George’s residents and strengthen the local economy.
As the first jurisdiction in the nation to use the P3 model to finance important school construction and maintenance projects, Prince George’s County should have been a shining example to communities across the country; instead, the P3 Blueprint Schools are being built on the backs of vulnerable, exploited workers of color. The school system tapped Gilbane to spearhead the construction of new schools, and it has become increasingly evident that playing by the rules is not a priority of the Rhode Island-based developer.
Prince George’s County leaders touted the P3 Blueprint Schools as a win-win — arguing that moving forward with long overdue improvements to PGCPS facilities would open new doors for local students and workers alike. However, by failing to incorporate a PLA, County leaders have dropped the ball.
If wage theft is easily preventable with PLAs, then what are local leaders waiting for?
For far too long our children’s potential has been stifled by inadequate, overcrowded schools. Just as county leaders are responsible for enhancing our children’s education opportunities, they are responsible for fighting for the local workers bringing these opportunities to life.
Prince George’s County elected leaders must have zero tolerance for wage theft. The county executive possesses the unique authority to publicly express support for PLAs by instructing the superintendent of the Prince George’s County Public Schools to require one in their requests for proposals and inform contractors bidding on school projects that this is an expectation of the county. The Prince George’s County Council and the Board of Education also play a ratifying role in the process and should vote down any contract that does not require a PLA.
Prince George’s County Public Schools is receiving proposals from a new shortlist of development teams interested in building the second phase of school construction. Despite requests from members of the County Council and Board of Education, these bids still do not require a PLA.
Instead of fighting commonsense worker protection measures, Prince George’s County elected leaders should demand PLAs. President Joe Biden (D) signed Executive Order 14063, which required the use of PLAs on federal projects over $35 million. That signing ceremony was held at the union hall of Ironworkers Local 5 in Prince George’s County.
Without swift action to require a PLA on Phase 2 of the P3, wage theft will continue to ruin the integrity and story of Prince George’s County’s use of P3 funding for school construction and serve as a national example of the wage theft perils in P3. If local communities are to benefit from robust infrastructure investments, funded by our taxpayer money, county leaders must raise their voices and demand PLAs.