City Must Tackle Barriers to Career-Track Jobs in Construction, Advocates Say

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Adi Talwar

A hotel development site on Beach 21st Street between Cornaga Avenue and Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, March 2018.

The construction industry is booming. In March 2017, there were 151,000 people employed in the industry—the highest number of individuals in 40 years. The mayor projects city investment made as part of his 10-year plan for 100,000 permanent jobs will also create 240,000 construction jobs. Then there are the thousands of other construction jobs that might emerge from the city’s affordable housing plan as well as unsubsidized private development all over the city.

But a few big questions remain, like how many of those jobs will be well-paying, career-track jobs—and who will have access to them?

The construction industry is generally regarded as accessible to individuals without a college degree. While some are low-wage, 46 percent of construction jobs pay wages of $50,000 per year or more. Unionized construction jobs are the most prized: according to a study commissioned by unions by the Economic Policy Institute, union construction workers in New York City earned $23.95 per hour (almost $50,000 a year), while nonunion workers earned $16.84 (about $35,000 a year) in 2015.

The desire for access to well-paid construction work is particularly acute in neighborhoods that have been targeted for rezonings, given concerns that the zoning changes will lead to rising rents and that local residents’ incomes must also grow to keep pace. Advocates say that past rezonings resulted either in jobs that were unattainable for local residents or were “short-term and low-wage,” as writes the Pratt Center for Community Development in a recent report on Long Island City, which was rezoned several times by Mayor Bloomberg and has been targeted for another rezoning under the current administration.

In rezoning neighborhoods, community advocates have consistently asked for training opportunities and mechanisms to ensure construction jobs lead to good wages, local hiring and apprenticeships. Some have called explicitly for union jobs, and some just for well-paid, career-track opportunities.

“The affordability level for the housing that is coming in is not really meeting the needs for the families we have now, so we need an economic stimulus,” says Darma Diaz of the Coalition for Community Advancement: Progress for Cypress Hills and East New York, a group that formed in response to the city’s move to rezone East New York. “We need some sustainability, where you are trained in a vocation.”

The de Blasio administration’s response to such demands has been to open up new Workforce1 branches—one-stop employment centers—in some rezoning neighborhoods. It’s using those centers to refer workers to pre-apprenticeship programs and other training opportunities. It has also expanded the city’s HireNYC program, which requires employers receiving city subsidies for housing development to make a good faith effort to hire from the Workforce1 centers. And the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is now requiring that any developers solicited to build on public land formulate a local hiring outreach plan.

Yet advocates still perceive significant barriers to good jobs in construction. They point to a variety of obstacles, including low awareness of opportunities for construction training, hurdles to accessing such programs, and the limited number of employers willing to work with unions or provide non-union but well-paying jobs. Furthermore, the rollout of the city’s new construction safety training requirements presents a new challenge: increasing the capacity of organizations to provide safety training to all who require it.

Existing pathways to good construction jobs

While there are multiple ways to land a helmet on a construction site, the opportunities are limited for residents seeking jobs with the highest wages and benefits: union jobs.

The State Department of Labor sets how many new union apprentices can be admitted into the construction unions based on the expected need for union workers in the construction industry. When the union opens up the lottery for these apprenticeship, there is overwhelming demand for limited slots.

Over the past few decades, however, unions have worked with contractors and government to ensure low-income New Yorkers and especially New Yorkers of color have access to those apprenticeships through pre-apprenticeship programs, which provide direct entry into union apprenticeships.

Affiliates of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which includes most of the unionized construction workers in the city, work with four pre-apprenticeship programs: Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW); Helmets to Hardhats, which works with veterans; the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills, which targets minority high school students; and Building Works. The first three have collectively placed more than 5,200 New York City residents into apprenticeships, with more placements made through Building Works. Some of those pre-apprenticeships were sponsored by the de Blasio administration through the Build It Back program for Sandy recovery projects; about 150 Sandy-impacted residents have become union apprentices after going through city-sponsored pre-apprenticeship training, according to the preliminary mayor’s management report of 2018.

The de Blasio administration also entered a memorandum with the construction unions in 2015 requiring that in projects under Project Labor Agreements, unions will fill 55 percent of apprenticeships with applicants from pre-apprenticeship programs (or, who are NYCHA or Section 8 residents or employees of certain Minority and Women Owned Businesses). And last year, the city launched the NYC Green Jobs Corp, which will fund 3,000 individuals to access pre-apprenticeships that prepare them for jobs such as retrofitting buildings to become more energy efficient.

Residents are recruited for the pre-apprenticeship programs through the city’s nine Industrial and Transportation Workforce1 Centers—employment centers that are focused on careers in sectors like construction, manufacturing, transportation and wholesale trade. These special Workforce1 Centers also recruit for non-union construction jobs, making about 300 to 500 placements a year. The city also sometimes recruits workers from the city’s 13 other Workforce1 centers. For instance, staff from the Industrial and Transportation Workforce1 Centers visit the East New York Workforce1 branch once a week, on Fridays, to offer pre-apprenticeships and non-union job opportunities.

And all the Workforce1 centers can also refer residents to one of the city’s more than 300 community partners, many of whom are capable of providing construction safety training, and some of whom are able to provide “hard-skills” training for jobs on a worksite. For instance, the nonprofit St. Nicks Alliance offers safety training, soft skills training (on things like how to write a resume), and a variety of hard skills training classes (on things like reading blueprints and using hand and power tools) and is known for working closely with employers to design those trainings, match workers with jobs and ensure workers continue to remain employed after a job is finished. Larry Rothchild, director of Workforce Development at the nonprofit, says the nonprofit tries to inform their trainees about opportunities to join unions. “But if they’re non-union—and even if they’re union—we still try to make sure they’re providing a good work environment,” he says.

There’s also emerged a number of Day Laborer Centers that provide resources for the most vulnerable, non-union workers—often new immigrants who “experience rampant wage theft, pervasive construction accidents, [and] unchecked workplace hazards,” according to the Day Laborer Workforce Initiative, a coalition of organizations that offer such centers. The Centers provide these workers with a space to congregate, seek work, receive training and even collectively decide on wages and basic conditions they will demand from employers.

“We have created an alternative to provide some basic protections to some workers who have no protections,” says Ligia Guallpa, co-executive director of the nonprofit Worker’s Justice Project, which runs one of those Day Laborer Centers in Brooklyn. The city began funding those centers in FY 2016.

The need for awareness, access

Though the city may have various programs and partners to provide construction training, one problem in low-income neighborhoods is a lack of awareness about the opportunities available.

For instance, the Coalition for Community Advancement: Progress for Cypress Hills and East New York has concerns about the number of low-wage retail and sales jobs on offer at their new Workforce1 center. They would have liked their Workforce1 center to focus more on training programs for the construction trades—and not just on Fridays.

In the Southwest Bronx, where the city recently won Council approval of the rezoning of Jerome Avenue, the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision has long demanded “funding dedicated to local apprenticeship programs” as well as “outreach so people know about training programs.” The councilmember for the area, Vanessa Gibson, says the city already does have various programs, but nobody knows what they are.

“We’ve got to do a better job of promotion and getting information out on the ground,” she says. As part of the rezoning effort, she made the city commit to conducting aggressive outreach in the Jerome Avenue area for the NYC Green Jobs Corp program. She also had the city fund a new position within the Department of Small Business Services called the “Jerome Program Manager,” which will oversee both business and workforce strategies.

“My primary goal is to make sure that residents are not basically given a referral to one location and then they are expected to do all the work,” says Gibson. She says the coordinator will help guide residents through the process of locating opportunities in construction and other fields.

But Gibson notes that even some training programs are out of reach for some of her most vulnerable residents. Participants in the Building and Construction Trades Councils’ pre-apprenticeship programs must have a high-school diploma or GED, which she says can be a barrier—particularly for formerly incarcerated youth of color and immigrants. Some training programs also require legal ability to work.

“We have to be more creative in how we are promoting these opportunities and we really have to make sure that we have to remove the barriers that people face in getting these jobs,” she says. (The city says candidates who apply to the NYC Green Jobs Corps pre-apprenticeship program but lack a GED will be referred to community partners who can provide education services.)

A 2016 report by ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community organizations, found that the city’s Build It Back program was successful in helping low-income residents in Sandy-impacted areas obtain union jobs but recommended more outreach for the program in different languages, city investments in GED classes linked to pre-apprenticeship opportunities, and more funds for community organizations to conduct outreach about the program.

There is also a long, documented history of labor unions excluding Black and Brown workers in the 21st century. Union representatives argue that this has changed in recent years: According to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2017 study, minorities make up 55.1 percent of New York City’s blue-collar union construction workers. They also account for 61.8 percent of union apprentices in 2014, a significant increase since 1994, when they accounted for 36.3 percent of union apprentices.  (Minorities make up about 66 percent of New York City’s current population.)

“The buildings trades’ current rank and file membership—the majority of those members are minorities and the vast majority are New York City residents,” says Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, which commissioned the study. “I do acknowledge that 25 years ago…things were different in the industry.”

Some non-union industry figures dispute the results of the study. There are also still reports of Black workers receiving less work than White workers in historically discriminatory unions. The Economic Policy Institute study also noted there is still a wage gap between Black and Latino union workers and White union workers in New York City, though it is less than the wage gap between those races in the non-union sector.

A lack of high-road employers

Issues of awareness and access aside, there is a larger problem: a lack of opportunities for well-paid, career-track construction jobs.

LaBarbera argues that one of the main impediments to the creation of good construction jobs is the number of “irresponsible developers that don’t care that workers are being killed on their jobs, that don’t care that they’re being paid off the books.” He says that what is needed are government policies to direct contracts to unions—but that too often, advocacy groups and elected officials are only fighting for local hiring and not for union jobs.

“A construction job that comes out of a rezoning or a ULURP process—if it’s not a union job, it’s a job that lasts on average for about 10 months, and that individual from that community ends up right back where they were before,” he says. “If we want to really expand opportunity…we need to continue to foster policies and in some cases legislation that … require lawful apprenticeship programs, for example.”

But policies that are perceived as requiring developers to use unions are highly controversial. About a year ago, the City Council debated legislation that would have required workers on construction sites of a certain size to complete an apprenticeship or similar program. The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which represents developers and others in the real-estate industry, adamantly opposed the bill, saying in testimony that 59 percent of the construction trade apprenticeship programs are sponsored by unions or union affiliates, that it would be difficult for non-union employers and contracts to create apprenticeship programs, and that it would have the effect of shutting out non-union minority contractors as well as minority workers.

The National Association of Minority Contractors agreed with REBNY, writing in testimony that, “while the construction playing field has been mildly tilled, we continue to struggle to address New York City spending billions and billions on construction, goods, and services, but less than 4% goes towards [Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises].”

That legislation was subsequently altered to require a significant increase in how much safety training workers are required to complete, but not mandate participation in an apprenticeship-like program.  The law passed in September and was hailed by unions and worker advocates as offering a significant step toward worker’s rights on construction sites.

Pat Purcell, the executive director of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, a partnership between labor unions and contractors, says there are still a number of government policies that could be legislated to create good career-path construction jobs without explicitly mandating that developers work with unions. For instance, if the city is subsidizing a project, it could require that the developer commit to ensuring that 10 percent of all workers hired will continue to be employed after the contract is done. The city could also raise the living wage standard. While projects receiving more than $1 million in city subsidy are required to pay a “living wage” of $12.15 per hour with health benefits, that makes the living wage basically the same as the current minimum wage, which Purcell says is far below what construction workers ought to be paid.

“This is about creating careers. Anybody can do one-and-done jobs in the community, but this is about creating careers, so people can live in their communities and they can actually live in the housing they’re building,” he says.

Purcell further says that the city could require non-union developers receiving city subsidies to take a certain percentage of their workforce through training organizations offered by community organizations.

St. Nicks Alliance’s Rothchild says that his training program could expand, but only if there were more employers willing to work with the nonprofit to place trainees in jobs as well as work with the nonprofit to rehire those workers for future projects.

The Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision has voiced skepticism of the city’s HireNYC program, saying that requiring employers receiving city subsidies to make a “good faith effort” to hire locally is not sufficient and that the administration must institute stronger local hiring and apprenticeship requirements for developers. The coalition, along with Councilmember Gibson, have also called on the administration to beef up its existing responsible contracting standards to ensure those doing business with the city are not exploiting workers.

Of course, more stringent requirements on developers who receive city subsidies or contracts will do nothing to improve job quality on development sites built without subsidy, in rezoning neighborhoods or elsewhere.

Rising demand for safety training

While supporters see the City Council’s passage of Local Law 196, requiring increased safety training, as a step forward to improving job quality on non-union construction sites, implementing the law will not be simple. The problem now is ensuring employers can comply with the law—and figuring out who’s going to pay for it.

Prior to the legislation’s passage, workers on buildings of more than 10 stories were required to take a 10-hour course from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—also referred to as OSHA 10. The new law requires an additional 30 to 45 hours of training, as well as expands the number of sites at which the training is required. The final number of hours, and the curriculum for that training, is currently being determined by a task force of industry experts.

Those new requirements, which will be phased in over time, will mostly impact non-union construction sites, as unions already provide workers with equivalent levels of training. In recognition of the fact that some contractors don’t have the resources to train their workers, and that some workers are day laborers who move from job to job, the City Council also allocated $5 million to increase the provision of safety training classes throughout the city.

But builders remain frustrated with the lack of clarity around what kind of safety training will ultimately be required and who will be able to provide it.

“Everyone’s trying to go to OSHA 30, but [classes] are being booked up as soon as they’re being offered,” says Carl Hum, general counsel and senior vice president at REBNY, referring to the 30-hour long OSHA class. He also has concerns with DOB’s intention to require training providers to be certified by a state or national accrediting organization: Unions currently have those certifications, but many nonprofit community organizations who hope to be offering the new required training do not. “Until DOB issues the final rules, people in need of site safety training won’t know where to go,” said Hum in an e-mail.

It’s not only real-estate developers, but also those nonprofit safety training providers that are anxious about DOB’s training provider qualification requirements and the rapid ramp-up of safety training requirements.

For instance, the Worker’s Justice Project has received $125,000 to begin providing free OSHA 30 classes. But Guallpa of the Worker’s Justice Project says that allocation is not large enough to cope with the rising demand, including from the many workers who don’t even have the most basic OSHA 10 training yet.

“Workers struggle a lot to get access to OSHA 10 and OSHA 30, and getting it in the private sector is very expensive. A lot of workers are paying between $200 and $1,000 just to get access,” she says. “Our biggest concern is, we don’t have the financial and structural capacity to train thousands and thousands of workers.” The Day Laborer Center Initiative is asking for $2.2 million in this year’s budget to keep their centers running.

The de Blasio administration has proposed adding another $64 million over four years to implement city’s construction safety training legislation. But Donald Ranshte of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, who represents unionized contractors, at a recent budget hearing questioned just how much the city should be subsidizing non-union employers to come into compliance with the law. He said his association supported the allocation of some resources to train day laborers, but that “contractors should be paying for their workforce safety training.”

Guallpa, too says that while the city needs to make some investments, she also wants the city to hold employers accountable for paying for the safety training of their existing workers.  Already, she’s heard reports of employers telling workers that they can’t come back to work unless they have OSHA 10.

“They’re putting that responsibility on the worker rather than say[ing]…‘I’m going to provide the training so you can work here,'” she says. “Workers have already paid the price by risking their lives in New York City.”

One thought on “City Must Tackle Barriers to Career-Track Jobs in Construction, Advocates Say

  1. The New York Construction Alliance is a trade association of open shop construction firms based in NYC. Our footprint in the local construction market is considerable. We have a backlog of over 7 billion dollars of work, we’re building 80+ projects within the city, totaling over 17 million in square footage. And collectively, three-quarters of the labor we source are minorities, and three-quarters reside in the very city that they are helping to build and rebuild.

    We have been able to expand the scope and scale of our operations due to abiding by industry best practices on various fronts, safety, transparency, diversity, and integrity in terms of providing value-added services to our clients. We’ve also been able to retain a qualified workforce, despite them not all being exclusively unionized, by providing fair market wages and benefits. Given the increased regulatory environment, and scrutiny placed on contractors deemed “nonunion,” we’ve implemented and institutionalized policies and protocols to keep our jobs as safe as possible–something that is reflected in our independently rated safety records being on par (or better than) our union counterparts in the market. We are also highly sensitized to workplace exploitation and circumvention of rules; we strive for the kind of transparency that promotes honesty, and that our workers are adequately qualified to legally work on our sites.

    With all this being said, we do feel that this a timely article. As an organization, we recognize the lack of substantive diversity in certain areas within the industry. Enabling more opportunities for minorities to gain access to the industry is a crucially important objective, that was the primary reason while we so ardently opposed the framework of Intro 1447 (now Local Law 196) in its original form. We also recognize the need to help more MWBE contractors–both general and sub–be able to more effectively take advantage of opportunities afforded to them. To that end, we’re in the process of establishing an MWBE incubator program to help these companies become stronger and more resilient participants in the industry. It’s evident that it’s not enough that our workforce reflect the diversity of this city, but that the companies employing them reflect that diversity as well.

    We feel that this is a critical way in which the city can tackle barriers to careers in construction, at all rungs of the corporate ladder.

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