WOODSTOCK – For a third straight year, the McHenry County Board cast a symbolic vote against accepting the state’s prevailing wage rates.
Board members voted last week, 14-10, to reject the prevailing wage schedule, which requires local governments to pay workers hired for public construction projects a specific wage set by the Illinois Department of Labor. But despite the vote, county government will instruct county staff to abide by the law.
State law requires local governments, such as the County Board, to adopt the wage schedule each year. But while voting to reject the schedule carries no penalty, a government that willingly pays workers less than prevailing wage is illegal – elected officials can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, and the body itself can be subject to fines, which would be paid by the taxpayers.
The ongoing yearlong budget battle in Springfield made this year’s vote slightly more interesting, as the lack of a budget has prevented the state from coming up with new wage rates – the labor department has advised local governments to readopt the 2015 rates.
Critics on the County Board and on other governments that symbolically vote against the schedule allege that prevailing wage makes public works projects funded by taxpayers much more expensive than they need to be. Supporters in organized labor counter that prevailing wage allows workers to make living wages in an expensive county, and prevents governments from shipping in cheap, unskilled and exploitable labor.
As in previous years, County Board members who voted in favor of accepting the schedule clarified that they did not support prevailing wage, but rather opposed voting against something that is mandated by state law.
“I will again say, it’s the law, and nowhere in this resolution does it say we actually support it. We’re just acknowledging that it’s the law, and that we are following the law,” said member Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake.
While board member Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, told Schofield that she respected her position, Hill said that a “no” vote is the only way the board has to protest prevailing wage, even if the vote has no weight.
“I don’t know any other way to have an effective voice in this,” Hill said.
The County Board after its first vote in 2014 to reject prevailing wage tried to gauge interest among local governments in challenging the rates, which the law allows via a hearing, but the effort did not go anywhere.
The Woodstock City Council last week also voted to reject accepting the prevailing wage schedule.
Illinois passed its prevailing wage law in 1941 as a mechanism to ensure labor disputes did not delay or cease public works projects altogether, and to ensure workers’ jobs were not threatened by itinerant labor. In subsequent years it was meant to protect the wages and benefits of workers from being slashed by employers competitively bidding for government projects.