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Women, Minorities Often Frustrated : Freeway Job Falls Short of Affirmative-Action Goals

THE CENTURY FREEWAY: Planners said the most expensive freeway in Southern California would be built with care and a conscience--a freeway "that has a heart". Five years after its start, problems remain. Third of four parts. Next: How the failure rate became staggeringly high for small female and minority-owned businesses involved in the project.

December 29, 1987|WILLIAM TROMBLEY and RAY HEBERT | Times Urban Affairs Writers

The $2.5-billion Century Freeway project has fallen short of one of its major goals--to create economic opportunities for women and racial minorities, especially those living along the freeway route in such low-income communities as Compton, Lynwood, Watts and Willowbrook.

The 1981 federal court consent decree under which the freeway, light rail system and affordable housing project are being built set some of the nation's highest affirmative-action goals--both for employment and for the awarding of construction contracts.

The court order also established various agencies to monitor affirmative-action progress and to help minority and female job applicants and contractors.

In addition, the consent decree urged the California Department of Transportation, which is building the freeway, and the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is in charge of the housing program, to employ as many workers and companies as possible from within the 17.3-mile Century corridor.

As the project nears the halfway mark, the minority employment goals have been met without great difficulty, but the number of women working on the project has been disappointingly small. Goals for directing freeway contracts to minority-owned firms have been even harder to achieve. While some female and minority contractors have flourished as a result of Century Freeway work, many more have failed because they lacked sufficient capital or know-how or because they got little help from Caltrans or from the Housing and Community Development agency.

Nor has the work produced the anticipated benefits in the corridor communities, where unemployment is still high, per-capita income is still low, and decent, affordable housing is scarce.

"One of the major goals of this entire project was to make the economic situation in that corridor lots better," said Ronnie Jones, a black contractor, "but things are pretty much the same as they were before."

Biggest Success

The biggest success has been achievement of hiring goals for racial minorities (defined in the court order as blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, American Indians and Alaskan natives).

Last spring, Caltrans raised the goal from 28.3% to 50%, under pressure from federal Judge Harry Pregerson, who presided over a long Century Freeway lawsuit and is now overseeing implementation of the consent decree, and from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, representing plaintiffs in the case.

Caltrans civil rights division officials say minority employment already stands at better than 50% on freeway jobs and more than 70% on housing construction. However, the project is expected to generate only 2,500 new jobs over a 10-year period, so even if women and minorities filled every job, the economic impact would be slight.

Female Hiring a Problem

And female hiring is a problem. Caltrans increased the goal from 6.9% to 10% for the project as a whole, including both freeway and housing construction. However, a recent study by the Century Freeway Affirmative Action Committee, an independent monitoring body established by the consent decree, found that only 1.3% of jobs were held by women.

"The 10% goal is ridiculous," said Ron Kennedy, business representative for the Building and Construction Trades Council, representing building trade unions. "You've got probably one in 500 women who could work in construction and many of those wouldn't want to."

But Helene V. Smookler, of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which negotiated the consent decree with Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration, disagreed.

"The pay is good and there are a fair number of women out there who want the work," Smookler said. But, she added, they are prevented from getting jobs by union limitations on female membership, by foremen who will not hire women and by "sexual harassment on the job."

Problems Presented by Decree

Even tougher problems are presented by the consent decree requirement that a major share of contract dollars, on both freeway and housing construction, be directed to firms that are owned and operated by members of racial minorities or women.

Goals are set on a contract-by-contract basis by the Caltrans civil rights division, in collaboration with the Century Freeway Affirmative Action Committee.

Recent freeway contracts have required prime contractors to guarantee that about 35% of the work will go to female or minority subcontractors. On the housing side, the overall target is about 47%.

'They Are Attainable'

These are among the highest affirmative-action goals on any public construction project in the country. Caltrans' statewide goal, on non-Century Freeway work, is only 16% for female and minority firms combined. The federal requirement is 13%, combined.

"We have set the goals high, but we think they are attainable by using legitimate disadvantaged enterprise firms," said G. L. (Jerry) Russell, chief of construction in Caltrans' Sacramento headquarters.

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