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Davis-Bacon Act: Methodological Changes Needed to Improve Wage Survey

GAO-11-152 Published: Mar 22, 2011. Publicly Released: Apr 06, 2011.
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Procedures for determining Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates, which must be paid to workers on certain federally funded construction projects, and their vulnerability to the use of inaccurate data have long been an issue for Congress, employers, and workers. In this report, GAO examined (1) the extent to which the Department of Labor (Labor) has addressed concerns regarding the quality of the Davis-Bacon wage determination process, and (2) additional issues identified by stakeholders regarding the wage determination process. GAO interviewed Labor officials, representatives from contractor associations and unions, contractors, and researchers; conducted site visits to three Labor regional offices; and analyzed data from Labor's wage survey database.


Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
To improve the quality of Labor's Davis-Bacon wage survey data, Congress may wish to consider amending the language of the Davis-Bacon Act to allow Labor to use wage data from geographic groupings other than civil subdivisions of states, such as metropolitan statistical areas or Bureau of Economic Analysis' economic areas.
Closed – Implemented
H.R. 924 (Responsibility in Federal Contracting Act) was introduced on February 12, 2015 and would require prevailing wage determinations to be set based on surveys carried out by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Also, on July 13, 2017, the House Report accompanying House Resolution 440 (Sec. 345) stated that the determination of prevailing wages under Davis-Bacon shall be conducted by the Secretary of Labor through BLS using surveys carried out by BLS that use random statistical sampling techniques. BLS wage surveys generally use Metropolitan Statistical Areas rather than civil subdivisions of states.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor
Priority Rec.
To improve the quality and timeliness of Labor's Davis-Bacon wage surveys, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Wage and Hour Division to enlist the National Academies, or another independent statistical organization, to evaluate and provide objective advice on the survey, including its methods and design; the potential for conducting a sample survey instead of a census survey; the collection, processing, tracking, and analysis of data; and promotion of survey awareness.
Closed – Implemented
In 2014, the Department of Labor reported that its Division of Wage Determinations was merged with the Branch of Government Contracts Enforcement into the Office of Government Contracts, headed by a newly-created SES position. According to officials, this merger centralized all aspects of the government contracts program and streamlined changes to the wage determination methodology. Officials noted that this restructuring was part of a larger effort by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) to reevaluate its survey processes. As part of that effort, officials said numerous meetings and discussions were held with BLS to explore use of the Occupational Employment Survey (OES) or alternative survey methodology. WHD officials indicated, however, that there are barriers to using the OES, including: the Davis Bacon Act and implementing regulations that require WHD to use the smallest civil subdivision, whereas OES data are primarily derived using statewide data; regulations requiring the use of a prevailing rate requirement at more than 50 percent as opposed to the OES' automatic calculation of an average rate; and the inclusion of data collected by BLS in its surveys that are not permitted to be included in prevailing wage calculations (for example, the OES includes data on "helpers"). In FY 2015, WHD officials reported that they conducted a review of the construction survey process. As part of this review, officials said they actively engaged with various construction stakeholders to identify ways to improve contractor participation in the survey. In addition, WHD officials indicated that in January 2015, they began conducting post-survey briefings to explain how participation affected survey results. Based on positive stakeholder response, officials reported in 2016 that they institutionalized the use of post-survey briefings and began conducting mid-survey briefings to increase survey participation. In April 2016, WHD published its first stakeholder fact sheet to clarify that survey data are not used to target contractors for investigation. In September 2016, WHD contracted with Eastern Research Group (ERG) to revise and streamline the survey process. ERG assumed responsibility for the survey in February 2017. As of May 2017, ERG indicated it was delivering weekly progress reports on the status of each survey and number of responses processed; revising the processing of survey responses to improve timeliness; revising the survey form to make it more user-friendly; rewriting standard operating procedures; and exploring possible approaches to improve response rates. The contract with ERG also indicates that it will conduct, develop, and test different survey strategies to maximize participation as well as conduct stratified sample surveys in counties designated by WHD to estimate the ratio of collective bargaining agreement construction activity to total construction. These efforts can help WHD enlist assistance to evaluate and provide advice on the survey. Conducting the survey evaluation and obtaining advice on how to improve the process can help the agency determine what additional steps are needed to further improve the determination of prevailing wages paid to workers on federally-funded construction projects.
Department of Labor To improve the transparency of wage determinations while maintaining the confidentiality of specific survey respondents, the Secretary of Labor should direct the Wage and Hour Division to publicly provide additional information on the data used to calculate its Davis-Bacon wage rates, such as the number and wages of workers included in each wage rate calculation, and to clearly communicate the meaning of various dates and codes used in wage determinations in the same place the prevailing wage rates are posted.
Closed – Not Implemented
In 2015, the Department of Labor (DOL) reported that the General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for managing the wage determination website,, and is coordinating its update. DOL officials said they have been working closely with GSA to ensure that stakeholder input has been considered in updating the website. Specifically, GSA has been conducting user acceptance testing with stakeholders from contracting agencies, external contractor associations and unions, as well as staff at DOL. In May 2017, DOL officials said the new system was in beta testing and that the first iteration of the website would focus on making it easier for users to navigate wage determination information, such as reviewing historical wage data and finding and downloading wage determinations. Once that phase is complete, work will begin on publishing more information to increase transparency, such as summary survey data used to set the prevailing wage. Since GSA is in charge of the project, DOL officials said they do not have an estimated completion date. Although these actions are positive steps, because the web site is not yet online, there's no estimated completion date, and it's not clear what information it will eventually provide, we cannot determine whether the transparency of how wage rates are calculated will be improved.

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Construction contractsConstruction workersContractor paymentsData collectionData integrityEconomic analysisEmployeesErrorsEvaluation methodsInformation managementJob classificationLabor costsLabor lawPay ratesStatistical dataWage surveysTimelinessTransparency