Opinion by Clark Peña of Construction Workforce Project as published in Crains New York:

As legislators in Albany discuss a potential prevailing-wage expansion, their deliberations have failed to consider the effects it would have on New York’s medical infrastructure. By boosting construction costs, an expansion of prevailing wage requirements could have negative repercussions that extend far beyond the development and construction industries. In fact, if this proposal is passed, it could directly limit New Yorkers’ access to hospitals, present a public health hazard and decrease the overall quality of the city’s health system.

This is particularly problematic when considering the current state of the hospital network in New York City. Our city’s health infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, with an emergency power system, IT networks, psychiatric facilities, medical devices and natural disaster-preparedness capabilities that are not up to date with 21st century standards. The situation is dire enough that the city has committed $52 million to upgrade these existing systems in coming years. However, this is a short-term solution that does not address the long-term vulnerabilities of most of these facilities.

Meanwhile, the proposal being considered would adjust current prevailing wage requirements to include private projects. Currently, only public projects—such as roads and government buildings—are subject to these requirements; however, under the new proposal, any private project receiving public funds would have to pay union wages as well. This has been estimated to raise construction costs by as much as 20% on Long Island and 25% in New York City. And while the viability of these projects depends on the investment and cooperation of private developers, such a huge spike in construction costs would make their participation unfeasible.

As a result, imposing these new requirements would actually limit the development of critical new services for New Yorkers. And by imposing union wages on private projects, the development of much-needed facilities such as hospitals would be discouraged and stalled.

Up-to-date medical facilities are needed to make New York’s health system a model of excellence once again. However, upgrades require the investment and cooperation of private developers—capabilities which could be limited by the higher labor costs that would be assumed if union wages are enacted across the board.

Our elected officials have an opportunity to do the right thing here. It is their responsibility to ensure that the health and well-being of New York City residents is always a top priority. But by raising labor costs, a prevailing wage expansion could further delay much-needed upgrades to the city’s hospitals and prolong the construction of new facilities needed to keep pace with the city’s growth.

Public health shouldn’t be sacrificed to appease union interests, and the state of the city’s hospitals shouldn’t be left up to political gamesmanship.

Clark Peña is director of advocacy for the Construction Workforce Project, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of open-shop and merit-based hiring in New York City’s construction industry. He wrote previously in Crain’s about that subject.

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