Somerville families are eagerly anticipating the city’s beautiful new state-of-the-art high school. Where an aging and inadequate school once stood, soon we’ll have a bigger, energy efficient learning space that enables more students to get the 21st century education they deserve. And despite the size of the major overhaul, there’s already promising indications that the project will be completed ahead of schedule.

There are two key factors that are making this job a success. First, much of the work is being performed by union construction workers, utilizing the best-trained, most efficient and most professional workforce available. Second, key elements of the structure are being fabricated off-site, before being brought in and installed by union tradesmen and women.

Increasingly, municipalities are relying on off-site production to speed up timelines and minimize disruptions on their public works projects. However, there is a darker underbelly to this trend that threatens to undermine our economic progress as a region and to lower standards for area families.

Contractors are required to pay at least a prevailing wage to workers on public works projects in Massachusetts. Those wages provide fair compensation and ensure quality work without sticker shock by leveling the playing field for union and non-union contractors.

However, the current prevailing wage law applies only to the women and men who are at the site of final assembly and unfairly excludes workers who are pre-assembling the materials for the public works projects simply because they are doing so away from the primary construction site.

Those workers who are ensuring the safe handling and production of the prefabricated construction components off-site are just as much part of the public works project as the folks who are doing the assembly on-location. However, because of this loophole, many women and men who are helping major public works projects to be ahead of schedule are being penalized simply for performing the job in the most efficient manner that is convenient for taxpayers, students, and commuters.

Workers’ rights advocates, including many local construction unions, are pushing for a legislative fix that would close this glaring loophole and extend the prevailing wage law to those involved in off-site fabrication, including for the sake of expediency and public convenience.

Some off-site fabrication in Massachusetts, like the Somerville High School project, is being performed by union labor and already meets prevailing wage standards, which is great news for our economy and for area families. Closing the off-site loophole would help address growing concerns about exploitative companies that have track records of safety violations and of paying people less than others for the same work.

Too many companies are using this loophole for the purpose of undercutting bids, lowering standards, and landing a public contract. Prevailing wage laws are a key way to help ensure women and men are paid the same for the same work — and the same is true for workers of different ethnic backgrounds. Closing the loophole would help ensure that happens more often.

The bill to get rid of the loophole, sponsored by Representative Tackey Chan of Quincy, is similar to bills passed recently in California and New Jersey, and one under consideration in New York.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts is lagging behind those states. That’s why we’re asking Somerville State Senator Patricia Jehlen and State Representative Paul Brodeur, who co-chair the Labor and Workforce Development committee, to move this bill out of committee right away.

With the rise in prefabrication, and the efficiencies that it can help bring, this legislative fix can’t come a moment too soon. As trained construction professionals, we support innovations and off-site fabrication to expedite key projects, but innovation should not be an excuse for exploitative contractors to pay workers less based on their gender, race, or any other factor. It’s time for the legislature to modernize its regulations and to protect workers, students, commuters and taxpayers by closing the off-site loophole.

Bob Butler, Business Manager, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17
James McCallum, Local 17 Member and Somerville Resident