Press Club

Collective Bargaining, Higher Wages for Construction Workers on the County Board Agenda

The County Board will consider tomorrow whether to advertise public hearings for two amendments that could impact labor negotiations and wages.

One will determine whether the county code should allow employee associations to enter into collective bargaining with the county over compensation, benefits, working conditions and other issues. The other would add prevailing wage provisions — increasing compensation for construction workers — for contracts of $1.5 million or more, starting this October.

Both of these changes respond to state laws passed by the General Assembly in 2020 and went into effect last month. One law allows municipal employees to join unions and negotiate employment conditions for the first time since the 1970s. The other gives local governments the option to implement prevailing wage programs for public works contracts exceeding $250,000.

Collective bargaining is slated to go first on Saturday.

“Consistent with Arlington’s values, the proposal to allow employees to organize and collectively bargain in good faith is intended to promote constructive relationships between the County and its employees,” a county report said.

The county anticipates that the initial collective bargaining agreements will go into effect in the 2023-24 fiscal year. Nearly 2,540 employees are eligible to join one of five collective bargaining units proposed in the ordinance.

These five units are police; fire and emergency medical services; service, labor and trades; office, professional and technical; and general government.

Some employee associations representing these categories already exist, but “the advent of collective bargaining will offer employees the choice to more formally organize their views through professional representatives,” the report said. Currently, associations for employees like police officers and firefighters are limited to publicly advocating for raises and other changes, as opposed to being able to directly negotiate with county officials.

This ordinance also would determine what topics are on- and off-limits for negotiation.

“While the County and the employee associations have reached consensus for the bulk of the ordinance, there remains a difference of approach on a few key areas, particularly focused on the scope of bargaining and how disagreements would be resolved,” the report said.

For example, Schwartz and unions disagree over how much of the process for challenging disciplinary actions can be negotiated.

About 1,590 employees — including managers and supervisors and temporary employees — are ineligible.

According to the report, the county budgeted $350,000 for legal services and a new position for the first phase of implementation, as more staff were needed to write contracts and determine bargaining units. But the county anticipates “substantial additional resources will be needed” beyond that.

It cited the City of Alexandria, which is spending $850,000 on the first phase, and Loudoun County, which has estimated it will need $1.4 million to get started.

In Arlington, the collective bargaining measure is supported at least by County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti and Vice-Chair Katie Cristol, according to Blue Virginia.

Next, the Board is set to consider a policy that would possibly increase wages for tradespeople working on government-contracted projects.

“Prevailing wage policies are founded on the idea that public contracts should not decrease the average wage rates for construction laborers and tradespeople in a locality but should either maintain the average or improve it,” according to a county report. “In areas where racial and gender pay and benefit gaps exist, prevailing wage policies can also help close these gaps.”

Some — but not all — workers can expect a boost in their pay from the new policy.

“Certain labor classes will see improvement while others are unlikely to be impacted,” the report said.

The policy will come with a cost, in the form of making construction more expensive.

“The standard assumption in the construction industry is that prevailing wage policies add approximately 15% to construction contract costs, although actual impacts can vary depending on the region, the type of construction, and percentage of the labor component of the specific contract,” the report to the County Board says. “Staff expects the actual impact in the Northern Virginia construction market to be less than this given the level of competition and the influence of existing prevailing wage policies in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.”

“If these contract costs increased by 5-10% that could mean additional construction costs of $3 million to $6 million each year and could require reprioritization of the capital program,” the report said. “Staff will carefully study these impacts and will adjust future cost estimates and capital plans accordingly.”

Both ordinances would be scheduled for public hearings and possible adoption on July 17.

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