Friday, March 5, 2010

African Americans and Women Construction Workers on the Brink of Extinction in Chicago

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Construction’s costly decision

by David Thigpen
The closing of Chicago-area building trade union apprenticeship programs is a major setback for jobless adults enrolled in programs to help them get into the unions. But the inability of new workers to get jobs could wind up hurting contractors across the region if insufficient numbers of minorities and women are in the pipeline to meet government participation requirements.

There are two ways to look at the unions' decision to stop taking in new apprentices: Supply and demand. The government requires 19.6 percent minority and 6.9 percent participation by women on federally funded projects. In the last 10 years, participation by African Americans in nearly every union has declined. From 2001 to 2005 less than 3 percent of apprentices in northeastern Illinois were women. Latinos have made strides in the lower-paying unions, but are poorly represented in higher paying ones such as the electricians and plumbers, according to a 2006 study commissioned by the City Colleges of Chicago.

In January, the bricklayers, cement pourers, drywall finishers and carpenters became the latest to suspend programs, darkening the hopes of 52 adults who have come more than halfway through a 28-week training program at Dawson Technical Institute.

Pre2, as the program is known, sponsored by the Chicago Urban League, is funded with a federal grant and includes both classroom and hands-on training. Another 58 applicants are preparing to begin their training. Pre2 is viewed by participants as a clear pathway to a job. Now, with entry into the unions blocked, the students will need a Plan B.

For African Americans and women, entry into the construction trade unions has historically been blocked by factors that have included racism, nepotism, and hostile work environments. But the closing of apprenticeships and the shrinking legacy of Blacks working in construction threatens to hasten their near extinction from the trades.

“When I'm driving past a construction site, do I see my skin color? Maybe three or four,” said Rondale Williams, 35, a father of two who is enrolled in Pre2. “A lot of Blacks weren't interested in going into that kind of work. So I'm not knocking the unions. We shut ourselves out of a lot of things.”

Williams vowed to complete the program but is frustrated by his now bleak prospects. “I went to school for this and I still can't get in?” Williams said. “Does that mean I'm going to be sitting on the sidelines again?”

Paying upwards of $70,000 a year, construction jobs are some of the highest-paid in the country not requiring a college degree. Construction work, however, isn't for the faint of heart. It's back-breaking, dangerous and uncertain, known for long periods of layoffs.

The apprenticeship closings aren't surprising in an industry that has been marked by steep decline in the last 10 years. There are a lot of journey workers unemployed, too. But these high-paying union jobs are worth fighting for. The industry will eventually recover. But with fewer minorities and women in the pipeline, and the U.S. Department of Labor more strictly enforcing participation rules, the region's ability to compete for government contracts is in danger.

“How are you going to continue to do these projects? They are either going to get fined or shut down,” said Cheryl Freeman-Smith, director of workforce development for the Chicago Urban League. “We got federal support to get more Blacks into the union. That is the whole point of this Pre2 program. We're concerned because in an industry that has long had trouble meeting its requirements, closing the unions is going to compromise a lot of the work that's being done.”

Ironically, just four years ago, builders and construction trade unions were bracing for a wave of retirements they said threatened their ability to maintain a skilled workforce.

The Builders Association got on board to sponsor more minorities into the union apprenticeship programs, but the number of African Americans getting in remained at a trickle.

Freeman-Smith said she will continue to work to get people employed with builders participating in the Urban League's Contractor Development Program. Also, Fifth Third Bank has donated a house for Dawson students to train on. But alternatives to a total apprenticeship shutdown must be considered to maintain the industry's workforce diversity if Chicago's construction sector is to make a true and lasting recovery.

David Thigpen is vice president of policy and research at the Chicago Urban League.

Below is an article from the Bureau of National Affairs on the Town Hall meetings on OFCCP regulations that took place in February.

Groups Call on OFCCP to Revise Hiring Rules for Construction Industry

CHICAGO—Organizations representing minorities and women in the construction trades attacked the rules governing affirmative action hiring on federally funded construction projects during a federal field hearing Feb. 5, calling the current regulatory structure antiquated and ineffective.

Groups representing African American, Hispanic, and female construction workers in the Chicago area pointed to numerous gaps in the affirmative action hiring rules administered and enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The organizations called on OFCCP to impose more strict minority and female hiring requirements on federal contractors and harsher penalties on contractors that fail to meet their compliance duties.

Under Executive Order 11246 contractors must demonstrate good faith efforts to meet affirmative action goals for the employment of minorities and women in the construction industry. The national participation goal for women is 6.9 percent. The goals for minority hiring vary by region. The current goal for the Chicago area is 19.6 percent.

OFCCP Director Patricia A. Shiu acknowledged weaknesses in the program and promised revisions designed to enhance the roles of women and minorities on federally funded construction projects. OFCCP has previously announced plans to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking amending construction industry affirmative action requirements in January 2011.

“To say that we're behind is an understatement,” Shiu said. “We know we're behind, we're way behind. We have to do a lot to catch up. But we've got to do a lot of rebuilding before we can catch up. There was a lot that was not done. So, it is going to take some time and we are working as furiously as we can to transform.”

The comments came during the first town-hall style “listening session” organized by OFCCP as it tackles several substantive rulemaking projects this year. In addition to the rulemaking on the construction industry, OFCCP intends to issue revised affirmative action and nondiscrimination requirements under the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act and new rules under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. Similar listening sessions will be held in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Texas in the coming weeks. The agency has also held a series of web-based meetings to solicit views on the three rulemaking projects.

Tougher Enforcement Advocated

Arthur Gass, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Lake County, said minorities face substantial obstacles as they seek to enter the construction trades in the Chicago area. Pointing to an immediate problem, Gass noted that nearly every apprenticeship program affiliated with the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council has been closed to newcomers. The council has said the programs would likely remain closed for the rest of the year. Gass said the closure could prevent contractors from meeting their minority hiring targets on federal projects for years.

But Gass said the much larger problem is that OFCCP does not meaningfully enforce affirmative action hiring goals. Gass said OFCCP rarely acts to debar contractors found to be in violation and fines are not taken seriously.

“I'm concerned that the contractors will just continue to violate the law,” he said. “They know they could get a fine, but they continue to operate as usual. This is happening so much, that they will build the fine into the cost of doing business. This is serious.”

Lauren Sugarman, executive director of Chicago Women in Trades, expressed a similar perspective regarding contractors' duties to hire women.

“I think enforcement of sanctions against noncompliant contractors is the most essential thing,” Sugarman said. “I think there have been very few debarments or restrictions on contractors considered by the federal government, yet there are a lot of noncompliant contractors and that should really change.”

Sugarman suggested that the 6.9 percent goal for female hiring be boosted to ensure wider usage of women on federally funded projects. She said the 6.9 percent goal was established more than 30 years ago and does not accurately reflect the roles women are currently playing in the workforce.

In addition, Sugarman said OFCCP should revise the “good faith” yardstick by which contractors are graded for achieving their hiring targets. Sugarman said the good faith standard has become a loophole, permitting contractors to actively avoid compliance. She urged the agency to develop more rigorous strategies for assessing the performance of contractors.

“We've seen 30 years of good faith,” she said, “but good faith has not turned into good numbers or good accountability.”

Wendy Pollock, director of the Women's Law and Policy Center at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, agreed and encouraged OFCCP to develop standards that broadly evaluate the performance of contractors. While the agency has tended to focus on the numbers of women hired for a specific project, Pollock said OFCCP should probably be asking a much broader list of questions including: what steps are taken to recruit female workers; when are female workers hired; when are female workers released from the project; what is done to retain female workers; what training is provided to female workers; and, what steps are taken to curb sexual harassment.

“My experience in talking to women in the trades has been sort of a ‘last-hired-first- fired’ situation,” Pollock said. “The OFFCP's job has to be a lot more visionary and holistic, not only with respect to ending occupational segregation, but also as an antipoverty strategy.”

Disabilities Also an Issue

In a separate session earlier in the day, Shiu and her staff focused on potential regulations under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires employers with federal contracts that exceed $10,000 to take affirmative action to hire, retain, and promote qualifiedindividuals with disabilities.

Joe Chiappetta, managing director of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce‘s “disabilityworks” program, said businesses continue to fail to hire disabled workers in large numbers. He said many of the problems involve confusion over federal rules pertaining to appropriate procedures for recruiting and hiring. He pointed to additional confusion over legal requirements pertaining to accommodations for the disabled.

Chiappetta encouraged OFCCP to do more to offer incentives to employers. While some incentive programs encourage businesses to hire disabled workers, Chiappetta said the programs are cumbersome and underfunded.

“To me the biggest issue is that the incentives that go along with hiring people with disabilities are not understandable and not digestible,” he said. “And there just isn't enough. It's not attractive to business.”


MasterAmazon said...

I attended the Office of Contract Compliance meeting in San Francisco and gave testimony along with other of my tradeswomen and Union sisters....our numbers have dropped, and they're not taking new apprentices here either....

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