Politics & Government

Wage confusion sets back program for weatherization

Washington’s home-weatherization efforts have fallen at least two months behind goals set under the federal stimulus aid, the result of a mix-up over conflicting wage requirements under federal and state laws.

Forty-seven homes statewide were weatherized in the July-to-September period. The agency’s contractors reached a higher completion rate of nearly 950 homes in late spring, before federal stimulus money was available, but work slowed dramatically once the wage question came to light.

At issue was how to reconcile differing pay requirements under the Depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, as well as state prevailing-wage laws. Both laws tend to lift wages toward the prevailing union rates.

Gov. Chris Gregoire rebuked Commerce Department Secretary Rogers Weed on Wednesday for failing to solve the problem sooner so people could get to work sooner. Weed asked for a more lenient goal, and Gregoire was in no mood for it, questioning what she called finger-pointing.

“I wish you had caught it,” Gregoire told Weed during a morning session of her GMAP, or Government Management Accountability & Performance program, which looked at the progress of federal stimulus efforts in Washington. “I’m asking you to get on board.”

Commerce housing program spokesman Steve Payne said weatherization programs previously were exempt from Davis-Bacon. The 1931 federal act ties pay rates on federal contracts to local pay rates that usually reflect union wages.

But the stimulus aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act required the Davis-Bacon standard to be met, and the U.S. Department of Labor needed to do a wage survey in every county to give guidance to the state.

That guidance did not come until Sept. 1, which set back the state’s schedule for weatherization by two months. Because there were other questions about how to harmonize the federal wage requirement with the state’s similar prevailing-wage law, the state Department of Labor and Industries then created comparison charts so contractors paid by ARRA funds can see which of the wage rates is highest, which is the one they need to follow.

It all translates into high wages for some workers, but it varies widely by county. For instance, a weatherization worker will earn $28.57 under Davis-Bacon in Thurston County, but $18.62 in Pierce County. The state’s prevailing-wage requirement is lower for laborers, carpenters and electricians in Thurston County, so the federal rate would apply there.

But in Pierce County, the prevailing wage is higher, which means the contractor might have to break down a worker’s time into different activities spelled out in prevailing-wage rules to figure out how much to pay.

“The difference between the rates is going to vary by county and the nature of the work,” Payne said.

The federal Department of Energy earmarked about $60 million for the state for energy-reduction projects, distributing the first half of it in July. The work to add insulation, reduce air leaks, upgrade venting and make other upgrades to home energy systems was supposed to create 250 direct jobs statewide each year, according to past estimates from Commerce.

The grant was supposed to finance projects on 6,940 homes, 813 of them in Pierce County. In South Sound, the Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties was granted $1.274 million of it for weatherization projects that could pay for 387 weatherizing projects over the next 21/2 years in the three counties.

Very little of that has happened, although Weed said the agency has solved the pay problem and hopes to get ramped up and at full speed by early next year. The agency also is starting a pilot program to do 300 projects through vendors it uses for its housing trust fund program in a bid to get production up to 730 units in the final three months of the year.

So far, the agency has seen slightly more than 100 homes weatherized statewide since Oct. 1, well short of the agency’s original goal of 935.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688