Seattle spent about $25 million rebuilding Rainier Beach Community Center, but only 10 of 348 workers on the project were Seattle residents.
What’s more, just four lived in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including Rainier Beach itself.
And the project wasn’t unique. Between 2009 and 2013, only six percent of construction workers on 33 city projects were Seattle residents, according to a city-commissioned study by the UCLA Labor Center.
“There are people in economically distressed communities who are skilled and ready to work but who are being left out of opportunities on city projects,” said Michael Woo, founder of Got Green, a Seattle-based jobs advocacy organization.
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The answer, according to a coalition of labor unions and activist organizations like Got Green, is legislation that Mayor Ed Murray sent this week to the City Council.
Roughly a dozen workers in hard hats applauded Thursday as the council heard public comment for and against the proposed “priority hire” ordinance, which would reserve a percentage of work on projects of $5 million and more for people who live in local ZIP codes with high concentrations of poverty and unemployment.
“This would be great for me,” said Yirim Seck, 33, a Central District father and Laborers Local 242 union member whose last construction job ended five months ago.
“I could possibly gain employment in my own community, which would cut down on my travel time. I’ve been shipped out as far as past Everett, as far as Tacoma.”
But also on hand were representatives of contractor trade organizations, who warned the council that an aspect of the legislation would shut out nonunion firms, including small businesses run by minorities.
The council will review Murray’s draft legislation, then discuss it again Dec. 4, said Councilmember Sally Clark, who chairs the council committee responsible for economic resiliency.
She said the council could vote on a version of the ordinance as early as December.
But first there are details to hammer out.
Murray’s legislation doesn’t compute the percentage of work that would be reserved for “priority hire” workers.
The draft ordinance says only that the percentage would vary based on the type of project under construction, that it would be determined by the city on an annual basis and that it would increase no less than two percent each year.
Murray relied on recommendations from an advisory committee of contractors, union representatives and community activists.
The committee looked at cities with existing similar laws, such as San Francisco, where 30 percent of workers on city projects now must be local and 25 percent must be disadvantaged.
On Thursday, opponents of Murray’s legislation urged the council to reject the law because it would require the city to execute Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on projects of $5 million or more.
Proponents of the ordinance say PLAs, which set out goals and requirements for labor and which are usually negotiated with unions, are beneficial because they ensure uniform work and safety standards and because they help create well-paying, career-oriented jobs for Seattle residents.
But critics say PLAs can saddle nonunion contractors with burdensome reporting requirements or exclude nonunion firms altogether.
James Hasty, whose fuel company is working on the Elliott Bay Seawall project, where the city is piloting the use of a PLA, said Thursday he is drowning in paperwork.
“That is eating away at my profit margin,” said Hasty, who is black, asking the council to exempt minority-owned businesses from the PLA mandate.
Murray’s office says nonunion contractors would not be shut out and says the city’s PLA experiment is paying off on the seawall project.
More than 40 percent of the work has gone to Seattle and King County residents and 21 percent to people from poor neighborhoods, the mayor’s office says.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or firstname.lastname@example.org