The end of the lockout of road workers hasn’t meant that vital construction projects are back on track in Michigan. One-third of heavy equipment operators haven't returned to their jobs at many companies, meaning some key road work won't be finished on time and orange barrels will persist throughout the winter.

“On average, contractors have only seen about a 65 percent return rate,” says Mike Nystrom, vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, the contractors group.

A three-week work stoppage ended more than a week ago when Operating Engineers Local 324 agreed to finish the construction season without a contract. 

During the idle period many workers found other jobs locally or moved out of the area.

"If there are members who are not returning, did you expect them to just stay at home and not work while they were being laid off?" asks Dan McKernan, communications director for Local 324. 

MITA fought unemployment benefits during the work stoppage, and McKernan blames that for the erosion of the workforce. 

But Nystrom contends a large number are refusing to come back because the union is holding their fringe benefit payments hostage.

The bulldozer, crane and other heavy equipment operators earn $33.70 an hour, and get another $23.30 an hour in pension, health care and other benefits.

When the contract expired on June 1, the union stopped accepting the benefit payments from contractors, claiming federal labor law forbids them to do so without a contract in place. The contractors dispute that interpretation of the law.

Some workers are buying their own health insurance policies, Nystrom says

“There’s a large segment telling contractors ‘I won’t return to your company because I can’t get my fringe benefits credited to me,'” he says.

MITA employs more than 1,200 heavy equipment operators, and member contractors account for about 85 percent of the road work in Michigan.

Current projects include I-696, I-75 and M-59. Hundreds of smaller jobs should be wrapping up, but have been pushed down the priority list.

“The focus now is to get them buttoned up safely before winter,” Nystrom says. “Where there was an opportunity to complete work this year, we’ll have a challenge to finish the projects with a limited workforce.”

MITA has offered the option of individual contractors signing agreements with the union to allow them to accept the fringe benefit payments, but the union hasn't agreed. Mediation to settle the contract stand-off has not yet started.

“If the union would accept the fringe benefit checks and direct them money to employees, I bet we’d see them rushing back to work,” Nystrom says.

McKernan counters, "If you lay people off there are consequences."

Gov. Rick Snyder intervened in the dispute in hopes of encouraging a settlement. The two sides agreed to resume work, but clearly the deal did not assure work would actually fully restart.

Motorists can expect lane closures and orange barrels to continue through the winter, adding to the expected misery caused by ice and snow.

“Will they get as much work done as they hoped this fall?” Nystrom asks. “That’s the question.”

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