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Seeking to help at-risk workers

Officials are ironing out final details of a program to hire low-income Angelenos for building projects.

September 01, 2008|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Business leaders, trade unions, community activists and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency say they are on the verge of an agreement that could help provide access to middle-income construction jobs for disadvantaged Angelenos.

Under a policy approved this year by the redevelopment agency and the Los Angeles City Council and endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, officials are ironing out the final details of a system under which low-income residents would be hired on some construction projects that use Community Redevelopment Agency funding.

The Construction Careers and Project Stabilization Policy has won the backing of elected officials, religious leaders, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a nonprofit advocacy group called the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. It also has gained at least begrudging acceptance by some contractors that are struggling through a difficult economy and would rather not be burdened with additional costs or requirements.

"It's a particularly innovative program, and it's rare to get this many constituencies on the same page," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues.

Such widespread support "indicates a real desire to make this work and it reflects the potential benefits: quality work for the employers, high-wage jobs and, for the community, a more stable environment in those neighborhoods," Shaiken said.

"And for those who get the jobs, it's a second chance."

The policy would apply, with some exceptions, to contractors on Community Redevelopment Agency-subsidized projects that involve at least $500,000 in public improvement funds or $1 million in CRA investment.

It would potentially cover 15,000 construction jobs over the next five years, the agency said. Three out of every 10 of those jobs would go to local residents who live in areas targeted by CRA development, and 10% of those would go to residents considered to be "at risk." Private contractors would be the employers, and the people they hire would be new entrants to union apprenticeship programs.

In some ways, it could hardly be a more difficult time to build acceptance for such a program among businesses, judging by a study released last week.

UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education found that housing construction job losses "have begun to filter into the commercial construction sector," said Sylvia Allegretto, one of the report's authors.

But that doesn't mean the program isn't needed now, said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and chairwoman of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which advocates for issues favored by organized labor.

"We will need to have these young people and unemployed, unskilled workers trained in advance of the time when they will be needed. Construction trade jobs are careers that require between two and five years of training. You just can't do this overnight," Durazo said.

On that point, Durazo finds some agreement from someone who would ordinarily be seated on the opposite side of whatever bargaining table was between them.

"It's understandable that contractors feel frustrated over the need to build this cost into our business," said Dain Parry, a general superintendent for Morrow-Meadows Corp., an electrical contracting firm based in the City of Industry. "But like it or not, union workers are better trained than the alternative, and having trained professionals means I can complete my projects on time and with fewer accidents and injuries."

Flor Barajas-Tena, a construction program director at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, said that this kind of program would have a value that goes beyond one job for one individual, even if the hiring eventually fell short of expectations.

"Ultimately, this policy is about community revitalization. It's going to allow these local residents to invest in their own communities," Barajas-Tena said.

Some see it as the wrong kind of program, coming at an especially tough time.

Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said the hiring policy would be discriminatory against contractors with non-union workforces. In addition, builders already are struggling through a difficult economy and don't need any new burdens, he said.

"It's going to increase costs and it's going to decrease the number of bidders on those contracts, and they will have to float bond after bond to finish these jobs because they won't be coming in on budget," Christen said.

The UC Berkeley study and another by the California Budget Project showed the need for better-paying jobs.

Working families had not fully recovered what they had lost during the last recession before the current economic downturn hit, the Berkeley report found.

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