Boots & Sabers

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1656, 27 Jun 16

The $100k Flagger

Heh. This is a story where the reporter is trying very hard to make a distinction that doesn’t make any difference.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel recently cited an eye-popping figure to support his call to scrap Wisconsin’s prevailing wage, telling Wisconsin Public Radio that the typical flagger on a state road project makes $100,000 a year.

That overstates the earnings potential of a highway worker by a wide margin, according to publicly available wage rates and unions that represent road workers.

A typical flagger on such projects would make about $32,760 a year in salary, according to information from those sources.

The number rises to about $53,000 if benefits are included. Overtime hours could push the figure higher, but still far shy of Stroebel’s six-figure estimate.

That’s how it starts. Makes sense so far?  Then we see how they arrived at their figures:

But in wintry Wisconsin, road workers aren’t on the job year-round, said Kent Miller, a spokesman for Wisconsin Laborers District Council. He said a typical work year for flaggers and other road workers would be about 1,200 hours, compared to the 2,080 hours-per-year benchmark for people working full-time, year-round. That’s roughly seven and a half months of the year.

The $32,760 salary estimate cited above is based on a 1,200-hour work year and a prevailing wage rate of $27.30 for a highway flagger in Dane County.

So what’s the difference? The $100k figure is an annualized figure. But Stroebel was making the point that we are paying way too much for our transportation needs and used the compensation for a flagger as an example. Stroebel’s point remains intact. Is paying someone $27.30 per hour a reasonable rate to hold a flag? Or, at the reporter’s own $53k number, is $44.17 per hour, including benefits, a reasonable rate? Could the taxpayers get the same level of competent work for $22 an hour? $15 an hour? $12 an hour?

The answer you’re looking for is, “yes.”


1656, 27 June 2016


  1. Brian (not Fraley)

    But, but … Robin says our roads are collapsing and our poor road builders are starving to want of bread.

  2. old baldy


    Just wondering if you ever flagged on a busy highway? I’m sure Dewey hasn’t. It is dangerous, hot, and dirty.

  3. Owen

    No, I haven’t. And yes, it’s dangerous and dirty. And yes, it’s good, honest work. But also yes, I am certain that we could still fill those jobs just fine if we paid $15/hour.

  4. old baldy


    Maybe maybe not. Why not shoot for minimum wage?

    Just another comment: If Stroebel hadn’t stretched reality there wouldn’t be any fuss over the issue, but rather than say that seasonal union flaggers on state funded projects make $27.30 in Dane County (they don’t get that up here), he went for the extreme impact comment. Or perhaps he had an aide that did the math without any knowledge of the job. Either way now rational folks don’t believe him, and may not in the future.

  5. Owen

    Maybe maybe not. Why not shoot for minimum wage?

    Deal. And if we can’t fill the jobs at that wage, we’ll have to pay more to get people to do it. Works for me.

    As for “stretched reality,” not really. He used an annualized figure that came from another study because it’s common for people to think of salaries in an annualized fashion. It’s the same thing that leads people to talk about teachers’ salary as an annual salary even though many of them are only being paid for 9 months of work. It was a live interview, so perhaps he could have been more careful in explaining the figure off the cuff, but it certainly isn’t irrational.

  6. old baldy


    You really can’t make that comparison. Teachers are paid by the contract, based on how much they work, 9 months, 12 months, coaching or other extra duties. It is an agreed upon salary by both sides.

    A flagger is a wage earner paid by the hour. It would really be a stretch to make that comparison with a teacher. But if you want the maximum short-tern sound bite, go for it. But don’t be surprised when someone with a little more experience that Stroebel calls him on the exageration.

    Perhaps a better comparison would be out state politicians, say Dewey Stroebel. If you took his annual salary and did the math on how many hours they actually worked, calculated an hourly rate, then multiplied by 2080 hours/year most folks would be outraged by the annualized salary he and all the others, R or D, we getting. Same comparison made with the teachers, no?

  7. Owen

    Fine. You don’t like the comparison. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Is $44.17 an hour (with benefits) a reasonable rate to pay someone for holding a flag? Remember how we’re talking about the overspending in our transportation budget?

  8. old baldy


    No, I still see that forest. But what is that flagger worth? You won’t get one in Dane County for $15+ benefits because you can get all sorts of jobs with better pay and working conditions. Big dairy operations up here pay better than that already.

    So maybe Dewey can get DOT to rescind the wage rates and require contractors to pay $15 fro flaggers. How much for a grader operator? Or the operator of the slip-form paver? 100 ton crane operator? Are they over paid as well? How low should he go? Aim low, you can always go up.

  9. Owen

    According to this, the average wage for a flagger is $11.64 an hour.

    Sure, we may have to pay more in some areas where the job market is tight, but even if it’s $20 an hour, it’s still less than half what we’re paying now.


  10. old baldy


    That is a national average that does not account for any regional differences. That is why the white sheet wage sheets you attached take that into account, county by county.

    With all due respect, that is not an apples to apples comparison. Stroebel took an hourly rate for a seasonal worker and expanded it to a yearly salary to get the maximum effect from his press release. That flagger isn’t getting paid in February (Stoebel is).

    I am our highway committee for our county board in the northern part of the state. We can’t hire good common laborers, that includes flaggers, for $17.50/hr. I doubt you will get any in Dane County for that either.

  11. Owen

    Did I not say that we would have to account for regional differences? Of course we would. But I still don’t think that we would have to pay a state average of $44.17 (with benefits) for this job. So in your part of the state, maybe you have to go to $22/hour or $25/hour. It’s still a heckuva lot better than $44.

    And this is only one job role we’re using as an example. I’d like to see a more serious look at all aspects of transportation spending including design considerations, government mandates, prevailing wage impact, material costs, bidding process, etc. The raw fact is that Wisconsin spends a crap-ton more on transportation than comparable states. Why?

    If it’s because we want to spend more money in order to get bigger, better, safer roads, then fine. That’s a public policy debate we can have. If it’s because the system is rife with overspending because all of the people making decisions on how much to spend benefit from that overspending (contractors, designers, engineers, politicians, etc.), then we have a problem. I suspect the answer is a little bit of the former and a lot of the latter.

  12. old baldy


    If the problem you see is systemic from the politicians on down, why didn’t you say so? But rather you picked out an dumb sound bite from Stroebel and ran with it.

    DOT and the consulting industry are pretty inbred, as they are with politicians. Just look at the secretary of DOT who is a former consultant AND state lawmaker. If you look back over the past 40 years you would see a revolving door of DOT administration and design consultants. The history in WI is to scratch each others back.

    “The raw fact is that Wisconsin spends a crap-ton more on transportation than comparable states”. If you are referring to the Reason Foundation report, that is true for cherry-pick examples you gave, but not for over-all performance and cost-effectiveness when compared to MN. And there was no breakdown in that report of apples to apples (asphalt to asphalt, concrete to concrete, resurface/repave, etc)project cost.

    Sure, you feel that we spend to much on roads. Others disagree. I feel that our transportation infrastructure is getting worse by the day because of politics rather than common sense. How much do we as a state lose for every missed opportunity?

  13. Owen

    I’ve been writing about the bloated transportation for years and have repeatedly called out the inbreeding in the DOT and transportation lobby and the politicians’ (of both parties) sucking up to that lobby. I even wrote about it last week in my column. This is one post about a news story about one comment from a politician.That’s how blogs work.

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