The Political Surveyor - Davis-Bacon Misapplied


by John "JB" Byrd
The surveying community is facing the most serious threat to its professional image in decades. The U.S. Department of Labor—without consultation with the community, public notice, or opportunity for public comment—issued an order on March 22 declaring that members of survey crews are “laborers and mechanics” subject to the controversial Davis-Bacon Act. Since then, I’ve spent considerable time developing and implementing a strategy and engaging in lobbying to affect a reversal of that policy.

The Davis-Bacon Act is a controversial Depression-era law, with a highly racial origin, that requires the payment of the local “prevailing wage” to “laborers and mechanics” on federally funded construction projects. It applies to prime contractors and subcontractors on direct federal contracts, as well as to state and local governments expending funds through a federal grant or loan.

This prevailing rate of wages is above the minimum wage provided in the Fair Labor Standards Act. One of the controversies over implementation of the Davis-Bacon Act is that while it calls for the “prevailing” wage, how those wages are calculated is not reliable, with allegations by many that the Labor Department imposes the “union wage” rather than a real market-based wage. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency of Congress, has long recommended that Davis-Bacon be repealed.

When issuing its new rule in March, the Labor Department reversed more than 50 years of policy. Since 1955, survey crews have been considered largely exempt. Arthur Goldberg, then-secretary of labor under President John F. Kennedy issued an opinion in 1962 stating that members of survey crews were exempt from Davis-Bacon, except to the extent to which they “perform manual work, such as clearing brush and sharpening stakes,” which he said “are not commonplace.”

The March 2013 ruling came at the urging of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Ironically, very few survey crew members belong to a union, and even fewer are members of the Operating Engineers. There has been no legislation, court ruling, comptroller general decision, or other governmental action that changed Secretary Goldberg’s interpretation.

NSPS has strongly objected to the Labor Department classification of members of survey crews as laborers and mechanics, stating it’s “an affront to the surveying profession” and “detrimental to our profession and an inappropriate demotion of valued and skilled employees.”
There are many substantive reasons the Labor Department’s new policy is erroneous. NSPS administers a “Certified Survey Technician” (CST) program for employees of surveying firms, including those who perform field survey functions. The classification of members of survey crews as “laborers and mechanics” is inconsistent with the CST program and the standard in the surveying community.
Moreover, classification as laborers and mechanics is in direct contrast with the treatment of such workers promulgated elsewhere in the Department of Labor, including the Occupational Employment Statistics, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, and the Occupational Information Network. The Office of Personnel Management General Schedule Qualification Standard for GS 817 surveying technicians employed by the federal government also considers such workers at a scale well above “laborers and mechanics.”
Some people might ask why NSPS would oppose higher wages for survey technicians. In testimony before Congress in a hearing held on June 18, Curtis Sumner, LS, executive director of NSPS, said, “There is no evidence that members of survey crews are paid substandard wages and no demonstrated need for including such workers in a ‘prevailing wage’ law, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.” That Labor Department data shows the mean annual wage for a surveying technician is $42,680, while the mean annual wage for all occupations in the United States workforce is $45,790, both figures exclusive of fringe benefits. Surveying technicians’ earnings are not substandard, but virtually in the middle range of all United States’ workers. The premise of the Davis-Bacon Act—to prevent construction firms from bidding low to win contracts through substandard wages—is not found in the surveying community.
Sumner also informed Congress that implementation of Davis-Bacon “will be an administrative nightmare for surveying firms, contracting agencies, and the Labor Department. The order itself is vague with regard to which members of survey crews, and which activities, and at what phase in a project the surveying service is being provided. This will result in confusion and costly compliance issues.” He said that a letter the Labor Department sent to the Operating Engineers Union suggests the Davis-Bacon Act applies to “work immediately prior to or during construction which involves laying off distances and angles to locate construction lines and other layout measurements. This includes the setting of stakes, the determination of grades and levels and other work which is performed as an aid to the crafts which are engaged in the actual physical construction of projects … The chainmen and rodmen whose work is largely of a physical nature such as clearing brush, sharpening and setting stakes, handling the rod and tape and other comparable activities are laborers and mechanics…”
The act triggers application to a “laborer and mechanic” when more than 20% of the workweek is in the performance of such services on a covered site. Sumner said, “Survey crews are not like construction workers. A survey crew member may be on a construction site a few hours a day, one day a week, and otherwise on a sporadic and intermittent basis, but rarely an entire 40-hour work week. Some work may be preliminary to construction, post-construction, or not related to construction at all. Documenting what every survey crew member is doing every hour of the work day, determining whether an activity is covered or not covered, construction-related or not, is an expensive, time-consuming and counter-productive burden. The payroll administration required for compliance for a surveying profession dominated by very small businesses is extraordinary.”
He said, “The described activities are outdated and irrelevant to today’s surveying. The Labor Department attempts to distinguish between licensed professional surveyors, party chiefs, and technicians, such as rodmen and chainmen. However, with today’s computerized data collectors, survey crews can commonly consist of one person. That individual is certainly exercising judgment and working in a supervisory capacity. Today’s surveying technicians are performing services that are mental and managerial in nature and are not ‘apprentices, trainees, helpers, and, in the case of contracts subject to the Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act.’ Therefore, they do not meet the criteria for a laborer or mechanic.”
In addition to formally writing the secretary of labor asking that the ruling be repealed, NSPS was successful in securing the June 18 congressional hearing at which it testified. The surveyors’ society has led a multipronged strategy to restore classification of survey technicians as an important support cast to the surveying profession. After the hearing, three members of Congress wrote to the Labor Department demanding documents related to the expansion of Davis-Bacon to survey crews. Professional Surveyor Magazine has filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. A coalition of 13 taxpayer and free market organizations wrote the Secretary of Labor in opposition to the ruling, as did five design and construction organizations.
The issue is not pay, but prestige. NSPS is currently scheduling a meeting with Labor Department officials to press its case for proper classification of valued technicians who support the profession of surveying.

John “JB” Byrd is the government affairs manager for John M. Palatiello & Associates, a public affairs, association management, and consulting firm in Reston, VA. He has more than 10 years of public-policy experience. He is the registered lobbyist for the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and the government affairs manager for MAPPS, the national association for private-sector geospatial firms.

It Was Just a Site Survey…

by David N Marquardt

In 2007 a Canadian surveyor visited Haiti with Engineering Ministries International to survey for a new orphanage.  Here's an excerpt from his story:
Marquardt Surveying Haiti
The author takes a break from surveying for a new orphanage.

Away from Port-au-Prince, Haiti is mountainous, but beautiful; the roads are narrow, steep, rough, congested, and it is an exercise in driving skill and patience to get anywhere. Throw in a typical torrential downpour, and there are many roads you pick your times to travel on; otherwise you may end up in a twisted heap of metal.

The site survey was completed in three mornings of work; the afternoon downpours were when we processed everything from laptops or took a shower in the tropical rainstorms. While finishing the computer work on the site survey, it was a pleasure to watch my  engineer/architect teammates do their magic, creating preliminary designs for several buildings: the main orphanage building (baby and toddler sections with an ICU), nannies’ dorm, school, volunteers’ residence, director’s residence, maintenance and mechanical building, and last but not least a chapel. We also performed soil and ground water testing and created designs for water, storm, and septic.

Click here to read the full story. 

Spreading the Word on the Evolution of Modern Mapping

by Karen Schuckman and Tom Keiter
Kass Green GIS Widfire
Kass Green (ASPRS) explains how GIS technology is used to fight wildfires.

Penn State Public Broadcasting is developing the Geospatial Revolution Project—an integrated public media and outreach initiative—about the world of digital mapping and how it is changing the way we think, behave, and interact.  The project goal is to increase public understanding of mapping sciences and geospatial technologies by drawing on the stories of the people who are implementing and being affected by these new tools.

The project will feature the web-based serial release of eight video episodes, each sevent to ten minutes long. Overarching themes and historical context woven throughout the episodes will tie them together.  The project will also include an outreach initiative in collaboration with our educational partners, a culminating documentary, chaptered program DVD, and online outreach materials.  Partners who will extend the outreach initiative include the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, NASA, and the National Geographic Society. 

Click here to read the full story. 

Sonar Goes to the Next Level

Hydrographic SonarBy Emmanuel Sgherri and Nick Goodwin

The future workloads of hydrographic departments and the survey industry are increasing exponentially with new missions and standards. Adding to the equation are mapping of exclusive economic zones and the continental shelf, maritime boundaries delimitation, habitat mapping, sub-sea surveillance, and detection of illegal loads on the seabed. The dominant question: how to manage this increased survey demand within existing budget constraints.

As children of the world now learn geography in a dynamic mode through a Google-type of visualization with direct access to the dataset, the ocean seabed will soon be visualized in the same way. Google Oceans is in its early days, but no doubt tomorrow millions of users, private and public, including scientists, professionals, environmentalists, fishermen, and students will visit the oceans from their laptops.

Click here to read the full story

TESS: Army Corps Website Protects Endangered Shore Species

Piping Plove

by JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has joined in the mounting chorus of experts who report that the environment’s health is at risk. The agency, whose mission is to monitor and manage threatened and endangered wildlife, reports that bird populations are plummeting at an alarming rate, and the health of our feathered friends is “a critical indicator of the health of the environment on which we all depend.”

One way the FWS is keeping an eye on threatened and endangered birds is by partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. They have collaborated to create a website that includes a geographic information system (GIS) that is serving as a user-friendly repository of information on threatened and endangered bird and plant species living along the New York and New Jersey coast. Scientists, decision-makers, and interested citizens can use this information to come up with joint solutions for protecting these species.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Bridge to Time Savings

by Don Talend
Surveying Dallas Bridge

Innovative construction techniques and high-tech surveying equipment kept a project to build a bridge near Dallas, Texas on a fast track. Now complete, it drastically cuts driving time.

Lewisville Lake, a 23,280-acre lake just northwest of Dallas, Texas, is a favorite of area sailboaters and fishermen, but in recent years, it hasn’t done much for drivers. Two major north-south arterials that stretch north of Dallas, I-35E and the Dallas North Tollway, straddle the lake and, previously, no east-west connecting route existed between the two. Circumventing the lake to get from one arterial to the other took drivers half an hour or more.

(Click here to read the full story.)

The Whitewater Canals of Indiana and Ohio

by Gordon Mitchell
Indiana Ohio Canal Surveying

“Canal fever” had swept throughout much of the eastern United States by 1836.

  • New York had completed the Erie Canal in 1825.
  • Ohio had completed the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1833.
  • Ohio was constructing the Miami and Erie Canal, to be completed in 1845.
  • Indiana had begun constructing the Wabash and Erie Canal.
Many areas of these states that were bypassed by the major canals built their own smaller canals either to connect with the major canals or to connect with major rivers.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Data Integration for Coastal Surveying

Combining Laser Scanner and Bathymetric Sensor
Data Integration Coastal Surveying
Church of San Pietro during the ILRIS-3D survey

by Marco Bacciocchi, Paul Byham, and Dario Conforti

When surveying the coastline, the integration of bathymetric (below sea level) and laser scanning (above sea level) data causes problems due to the different imaging properties. However, by ensuring that the different data sets have been accurately georeferenced and oriented, a complete and accurate model of the terrain above and below sea level can be obtained. This technique was employed to survey the area of Portovenere in Italy, including the San Pietro church located on a steeply sloping rocky promontory, with positional accuracies in the order of 5cm.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Single-beam Echosounders

by Ronald Koomans, contributing editor, Hydro International

We hope this product survey helps you to choose the best system for your applications. The details listed here form only a concise overview of the instruments. A PDF of the full survey is available for download from our website. Also, you can compare your views on products through our website; and with a few clicks you can select some of the products in which you are interested and view their details side by side. In addition, you will find a box for your comments on a particular item of equipment underneath every product on our website, so you can inform each other about your experiences. After all, you're our expert!

Click here to download the eight-page product comparison.

Click here to view online the full survey and interactive comparison.

Getting to California

The Coast Survey and the Gold Rush
by Albert E. Theberge Jr, contributing editor, Hydro International
james lawson surveyor
Portrait of James Lawson

During the California Gold Rush, many people from around the world left everything behind—including their jobs—to seek their fortune in California. A copy of one of the more interesting historical documents from this period resides in the NOAA Central Library. This document, The Autobiography of James Lawson, details the work of four young coastal surveyors who were sent to the western coast at the height of the gold frenzy. 

Lawson, born in Philadelphia in 1829, was educated at the Philadelphia Central High School and became a clerk to Alexander Dallas Bache, the second superintendent of the U.S. Coastal Survey. Following the Mexican War and the acquisition of California, Bache sent survey crews to California in 1848 to commence the survey of the U.S. west coast. Thediscovery of gold in California led to one of the great migrations of human history as fortune seekers, known as ‘49ers, from throughout the world rushed to California. This led to shortages of laborers, desertion of hundreds of ship crew in San Francisco Bay and desertion of many members of the survey crews with consequent lack of progress.

To correct this situation, Bache handpicked four young men “who had a recordto make.” The chief of this crew was George Davidson; the other threemembers were Lawson, the topographer A.M. Harrison, and John Rockwell.

(Click here to download the full story.)


Air France Flight AF 447 Air France AF 447 Marines

A Challenge for Search and Recovery Technology
by Andrew Gerrard, contributing editor, Hydro International

(This article was published before the search was called off.)
A group of Brazilian marines recover debris from the missing Air France jet in the
Atlantic Ocean on 8 June 2009 (Courtesy of EPA).

Air France flight 447, a scheduled passenger service from Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) to Paris (France), went missing on 1 June 2009 over the Atlantic Ocean with 228 people onboard. The aircraft took off from Galeão International Airport at 22:03 (UTC) on 31 May 2009 with an expected flight time of 11 hours. Contact was lost 4 hours into the flight. No distress calls were made. The recovery of aircraft parts and the ‘black-box’ recorders will be crucial to the investigation team – these tasks will challenge equipment, techniques and the ingenuity of the teams at sea. 

(Click here to download the full story.)

Compare Your Picks from 37 Total Stations

Total Station Comparison

Our sister publication GIM International has analyzed high-end total stations in a new way on their website. You can select up to 5 products to compare, and then add your comments beneath the detailed view of any product as well as read comments of other users. 

They say, "Last year an overwhelming number of 42 instruments were listed in our Product Overview. This was my reason for announcing in my introduction to the 2008 Product Overview a reconsideration of the minimum specifications, with motorisation of instrument as new criterion.

Four manufacturers, Leica, Sokkia, Topcon and Trimble, were able to meet these ‘upgraded' specifications. These instruments are listed in the coming pages, and really represent the crème de la creme.

One remarkable instrument in this overview is Leica's brand-new TM/TS 30. Besides excellent performance in angle and distance measurements, the most interesting part lies under the hood. Motorisation of the instrument uses direct drives based on the ‘piezo' principle, which directly transforms electric power into mechanical movement..."

Read the full article and compare your picks, here!

How Google Gave Geography its Groove BackEd Parsons Google Geospatial

by Monique Verduyn, contributing editor, Hydro International

Once upon a time, the study of the Earth’s surface, its features, inhabitants and phenomena was nothing more than a tiresome school subject for the average person on the street. Google has changed all that with its interactive map of the world. Stitched together from aerial and satellite footage, it has been downloaded more than 400 million times, with people and organizations putting it to all sorts of interesting uses, from spying on celebrities to locating the nearest hotel in a foreign city. We spoke to Ed Parsons, Google’s geospatial technologist, to find out more about what lies ahead for one of the world’s most-loved applications.

Ed Parsons, Google’s geospatial technologist

(Click here to read the full story.)

Fort SteubenFort Steubens Land Survey

by Gordon Mitchell

After the American Revolution had ended in 1783, the newly formed United States needed money. At that time, the United States had little money but an abundance of land. To raise the needed money, the United States would sell much of her new land to new settlers. But before this new land could be settled, it had to be surveyed and platted.

The Seven Ranges

On May 20, 1785, the Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, which designated a new survey system. Under this new system, all land would be surveyed into six-mile square townships, and all townships would be arranged in north to south columns (ranges). Each township would be subdivided into 36 one-mile square (640 acre) lots or sections.

(Click here to read the full story.)


by Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS

Bayou Terre Aux Boeufs (Land of the Oxen) had served as the main transportation conduit for a series of sugar plantations in rural St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Most if not all of these plantations along the bayou were established and working long before the Revolutionary War.  The United States’ government land surveys that followed after the Louisiana Purchase simply recovered and reported these established boundaries of the plantations and assigned section numbers to them.  Of course, the land owners ignored the assigned section numbers and continued using the colonial land record system that identified the parcels by the plantation names.

In June of 1962, the St. Bernard Parish government decided to purchase a portion of Belview Plantation adjacent to Jamis Plantation for a sewage treatment facility.  My father Eugene was contracted to survey and subdivide the site. 

(Click here to read the full story.)


A Survey-accurate Cadastral Model Aids in Railway Infrastructure Development

by Ian Harper and Karen Richardson

In Australia, the New South Wales (NSW) government owns and operates the electrified metropolitan railway network throughout Sydney and surrounding commuter areas. As the population of Sydney has grown outward into new areas of urban development, the government has recognized the need for major upgrading of parts of that system. To facilitate those upgrades, the NSW Transport Infrastructure Development Corporation (TIDC) was enacted to focus on the construction of major projects.

One such project involved the upgrade of 10 kilometers of an existing single line that serviced a historical rural area identified as a major growth center for Sydney’s future. To commence the planning and design stage, the project managers needed a survey-accurate cadastral model of the route, and for political reasons with a minimum of survey fieldwork.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Oregon Trail Surveying Book

Book Review: The Oregon Trail, by Francis Parkman

by Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS

This book, I am told, used to be on high school reading lists. (If you have read it, raise your hand.) I came across it only recently in a used book stall at a local farmer’s market. It caught my eye because I had just read Chaining Oregon, set during the years immediately following the influx of settlers into the Oregon territory over this trail.

The book is not about surveying. Nor is the book, strictly speaking, about the Oregon Trail. When it was first published in 1849, its title was The California and Oregon Trail. But it covers the way west only on this side of the Rocky Mountains, about a third of its length, and then only because it provided a convenient route to the author’s intended destination, the home ground of the Ogillallah (Sioux) Indians at the foot of the mountains.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Creative New Use for Total Station

In building the World Market Center in Las Vegas, a contractor found that using a total station proved far superior to older methods for a challenging measuring job.

Total Station Las VegasBy Larry Trojak

Once primarily a mainstay of surveyors, the total station has broadened its appeal, finding ready acceptance by other disciplines including concrete contractors, steel erecting firms, and glaziers.  Providing far greater accuracy in setting control points than traditional instrumentation, total stations have become a mainstay on many jobsites around the world.  This holds particularly true in on-standard construction situations, and Las Vegas-based glazier Embassy Glass drew upon its benefits as it undertook one of its most challenging wall system installations ever. The firm says its total station brought previously unseen levels of efficiency and accuracy and streamlined what seemed a near-impossible process.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Vizcaya Documentary Gets Help from Surveying and Engineering Firm

by Gene LaNier
Vizcava Villa Surveying and Engineering
An entrance to Vizcaya Villa

When a public broadcasting station’s senior producer began research for a documentary about an 83-year-old Italian-style villa in Miami, Florida, most people would never have thought she would check with the surveying and engineering company that did all the surveying and engineering for the project. That’s almost a hundred years ago.  However, that’s exactly what senior producer Linda Corley of PBS Channel 2 did. 

Surprisingly, she found the company is still in business and is today the oldest company headquartered in the city of Miami, 111 years to be exact. Here is a short version of the story that airs in south Florida in late May and nationally in the fall.

(Click here to read the full story.)

William J. Stengel: Surveyor

William Stengel Surveyor
Bill surveyed in a snake- and alligator-infested swamp
near Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1958 to 1959.

by Earl Henderson

When the project engineer approached the concrete crew and asked who wanted to help with setting grade stakes on the drainage project, Bill Stengel saw him coming and made sure to raise his hand quicker than anyone else. He knew that just about anything would be better than what he was doing: pouring and finishing concrete. 

At each stage of the staking operation the engineer would describe what was happening, why it was being done, and how it referenced the pipe laying. And at each of those same stages Bill would simply reply, “That makes sense,” which impressed the engineer enough to suggest to Bill that he consider pursuing a career as a surveyor or engineer.

(Click here to read the full story.)


Survey Firms Need to Have ContractsSurvey Firm Contract

The Ins and Outs of Using Them

By Justin Klein and Mark Amirault

Think back to when you decided to start your own firm; no doubt it wasa time full of excitement and anxiety. You posed countless questions asyou developed a business plan. Questions like: Where will my work comefrom? When will I need to hire additional employees? How much moneyshould I invest in equipment? For many surveyors, one question loomsthat they might not have asked then and are still not sure how toanswer today: Should I use a written contract?

(Click here to read the full story.)

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