Why You Don’t See Flagmen in Massachusetts

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/11/26/why-you-dont-see-flagmen-in-massachusetts/

Massachusetts drivers rarely see civilian flagmen to direct traffic at road construction projects because state law ensures that they’re not much cheaper than hiring cops, a new Pioneer Institute report says.

A civilian flagman costs $43.44 an hour, far above the national average of $28.89, according to the Pioneer policy brief released Monday. That’s not much less than state and local police officers get, and town and city officials aware that police officers use details to supplement their incomes usually hire police for road projects rather than flagmen.

Why do flagmen command such a high wage?

The state’s prevailing wage law ensures that unions won’t get underbid on public works projects by setting a wage floor for workers. Prevailing-wage laws are common in pro-union states like Massachusetts.

But the way Massachusetts calculates the prevailing wage drives costs up even more than in most prevailing-wage states, according to the Pioneer report. That’s because while most states use market labor rates to help calculate the prevailing wage for various jobs, Massachusetts is one of only five states that only use existing collective bargaining agreements between unions and government. That means that the union contract sets the standard, without being tugged downward by other market forces.

“The intent of prevailing wage laws is to prevent companies engaged in public construction from paying construction workers less than the market wage for similar work performed in the area. This a worthy goal,” the Pioneer report states. “But in Massachusetts, the intent and effect of the prevailing wage law is to require state and municipal taxpayers to pay the highest wage rather than the prevailing wage. The net effect is to artificially and substantially inflate the cost of public construction projects, including transportation projects.”

For years Massachusetts was the only state in the country that required police details on every road construction project, even on dead-end streets with little traffic. In 2008 then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that allowed for civilian flagmen to be used on low-speed roads and low-traffic high-speed roads.

Yet the 2008 law led to little cost savings.

“The 2008 flagger reform was expected to save considerable money, but because the prevailing wage law effectively requires civilian flaggers to be paid about the same as police details, and because cities and towns were not mandated to hire civilian flaggers at low-speed sites, the reform was weakened to the point of becoming [a] historical footnote,” states the policy brief by Gregory Sullivan and Michael Chieppo, titled “Whatever Happened To Flagger Reform?.”

Sullivan, a former state inspector general, is the research director of Pioneer Institute, a conservative Boston think tank. Chieppo worked as a research assistant at Pioneer this past summer.

While limiting police details to lower the costs of road projects was a hot topic 10 years ago, there don’t appear to be attempts on Beacon Hill to change current state policy.

Governor Charlie Baker has focused on trying to increase safety in roadwork areas, not on limiting the costs of promoting safety.

“Governor Baker believes that on any roadway construction project, the focus should be on maintaining the safety of both workers and drivers, and has previously filed legislation to allow MassDOT to set speed limits in work sites and double fines for speeding in these areas. The administration supports the use of a combination of police details and civilian flaggers on projects as directed by law, and would carefully review any legislative proposals that reach the Governor’s desk,” said Sarah Finlaw, deputy communications director in the governor’s press office, in an email message to New Boston Post.

MassDOT is an abbreviation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Using civilian flagmen on road projects is a hot potato in Massachusetts because many police officers rely on details for a significant portion of their take-home pay.

Twenty-five members of the Massachusetts State Police earned more than $250,000 in gross pay during calendar year 2017. For many of them, special details were a significant portion of their income.

Eighteen members of the Boston Police Department made more than $100,000 in detail pay during calendar year 2017. Among those, the lowest earned a gross total pay that year of $213,889.74; the highest earner among the 18 earned a gross total pay of $366,232.65.

The 13 highest-paid Boston police officers in 2017 were not among the top brass of the department, but rather captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and detectives, who earn both overtime and detail pay on top of their base salaries. Seven of those 13 earned more in details than in overtime. Total gross pay for those 13 officers ranged from about $296,000 to about $366,000.

Spokesman for the unions that represent Massachusetts State Police and Boston police could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Below is a breakdown of hourly pay for civilian flagmen on federally funded projects in the six New England states, from the Pioneer study. Five of the six are prevailing-wage law states – only New Hampshire isn’t – but economic conditions and how the prevailing wages are calculated account for the disparity.


Rhode Island       $44.50

Massachusetts    $43.44

Connecticut         $35.84

New Hampshire  $15.54

Vermont              $12.63

Maine                  $9.93