Hope on the Horizon?: The Crenshaw Line and the Question of Jobs

The Crenshaw/LAX Line office on Crenshaw Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

At the Ready-to-Work rally on Saturday organized by the Black Worker Center, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas reassured the crowd of job hopefuls gathered in Leimert Park that the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) Metro had adopted in 2012 would ensure a portion of the jobs for the Crenshaw Line would go to the disadvantaged.

Said the L.A. Times:

“This is economic justice in real time,” said Ridley-Thomas, who serves on Metro’s board and was one of the most forceful proponents of the agreement. He promised to closely monitor hiring and received a round of applause after announcing that if mandates weren’t met he would look to “penalize” contractors or “declare them in breach of contract.”

The problem is, it isn’t clear that the disadvantaged hires — or any of the hires, for that matter — will be from L.A.

The agreement requires that a sizable percentage of workers on any job be hired from within specific pools of “targeted workers.” For locally-funded projects, a minimum of 40% of project hours would have to be worked by local community residents. A percentage of those workers would be disadvantaged (those living within economically depressed zip codes or having at least two barriers to entry to the workforce) or apprentices. Projects that have a federally-funded component must dedicate 40% of work hours to workers from disadvantaged circumstances, but must also draw from a national pool.

Therein lies the rub.

The fact that nearly $546 million of the funding for the Crenshaw Line is from a federal loan means that the search for hires must be national.

And while, thus far, Metro has been diligent in monitoring the extent to which contractors have been (mostly) compliant with hiring requirements, ensuring that jobs go to targeted workers is still a challenge.

At an informational session held at Metro’s Crenshaw office earlier this summer, some workers complained that contractors will sometimes move their work team into apartments that fall within economically disadvantaged zones in order to meet eligibility requirements.

Others noted that, because the construction industry is 75% Latino and foremen like to build their own teams (meaning job access is linked to who you know), it is hard for African-Americans to break in. Some have been told their Spanish isn’t good enough to work on a site. Workers who have been at the top of their trade for 20 years suggested discrimination kept them from being hired for anything more than piecemeal jobs. A man who worked in job placement said it was still hard to get women placed, regardless of their qualifications. Or they would be given jobs their supervisors knew would push them out.

Verifying income or a worker’s period of residency in a particular zip code might help deal with some of these concerns. As would ensuring that the jobs going to the more disadvantaged workers were actually of some longer-term benefit to them. Because compliance is measured in project hours worked, it may be easier for contractors to give lower-paid or less steady work to the disadvantaged workers, saving the longer-term jobs for more privileged workers.

Having a strong local worker pool is also important.

A number of local organizations have gotten involved in trying to prepare L.A. workers to join the workforce. Even before Walsh/Shea won the bid, the Young Black Contractors had been trying to network with them just to get a foot in the door. The Black Worker Center has long been active in teaching workers how to build relationships with contractors, attend meetings to network, take advantage of services offered by employment agencies, and link themselves to unions. LAANE, We Build, and others inform potential workers about opportunities and help them enroll in pre-apprenticeship programs that put them on the path to construction careers.

It isn’t always easy.

Because these potential workers are often truly disadvantaged, things like not having a driver’s license (required for the We Build program), reliable access to a phone, or confusion regarding the process of getting a job in a skilled field can really set them back.

So can the fact that there are so few jobs available.

In fact, the contractor is currently projecting there will only be 350 positions open for work on the Crenshaw Line.

Yep.

350.

It’s a far cry from the “thousands” that elected officials had told people in the area that they would be likely to see.

But, say Metro representatives, people shouldn’t be discouraged.

Metro is dedicated to the PLA model in future projects, and there are many in the pipeline. Because of Measure R, Metro and Public Works will be regularly rolling out new projects for the next 25-30 years. So, even though they might not get hired for the Crenshaw Line now, the best thing workers can do is make sure they are trained and prepared to take advantage of those future opportunities.

They are on the horizon.

For more about the PLA, click here.

  • True Freedom

    Yeah, I dunno. Seems like when you’re building something like a train that is responsible for human life … I think you’d want a work candidate’s skill to be the primary hiring factor.. not their zip code.

  • michael macdonald

    There are a number of implications in your statement that I would take issue with:
    1. That there are not capable workers available in the local community.
    2. That inspectors, project managers, designers, and the general contractor are not capable of providing quality assurance over the project construction staff to ensure both a successful project and safe construction site.
    3. That the disruption by construction to the local economy is not a reasonable concern to be addressed.

    Hiring local was one of the community’s primary concerns during the outreach process of the Crenshaw Line, and something that the project’s proponents continually committed to. It is not unreasonable to ask for that commitment to be honored.

  • sahra

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with you on that. But to say that assumes that the contractors currently work on a purely merit-based system and that the best people for the job are always hired. That isn’t necessarily the case. As I mention in the story, there is a lot of discretion over hiring and contractors and foremen like to go with teams they know. Which means that others — particularly African-Americans — are more easily shut out, even if they are just as deserving of the job. Because we can’t have a quota system based on race or gender, making sure that people from all walks of life, particularly those that are qualified and talented but struggle because of a past history of being in the foster system, being on public assistance, made mistakes in their past, or whatever the case may be is the best proxy we can have to making sure that job sites are diverse. Moreover, if local people can be put to work on local projects, it helps to ensure the longer-term success of that development… the more people hired, the more money in the community, the more they feel connected to the project they worked on, and the more likely they are to spend their money on it. I hope that Ridley-Thomas’ and Metro’s commitments to making sure that hiring guidelines are followed means that they will use those guidelines to ensure the best people are hired.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Often, when politicians talk about how many jobs are being created, they mean job-years, rather than jobs at one time. If there are 350 jobs for four or five years, that adds up to 1400 or 1750 “jobs” in officialese.

    Of course, everyone thinks in terms of jobs at a time, and assumes the jobs are permanent, but for some reason the officials have decided on a different, confusing convention.

  • sahra

    Hmm. Interesting point. If that’s the case, they really need to be clear about something like that, because that makes a big difference. And estimates being thrown around were at 9000 or so at the time–I have heard that number several times. I think some of the “thousands” that were alluded to were the jobs that would service workers (food, drycleaners/laundromats, clothing, etc.) and other jobs that more traffic through an area might create (i.e. more business along Crenshaw). But again, it wasn’t sold to people that way. It was more “you will help build this line and this line will benefit you” kind of stuff… part of the bitterness over the Crenshaw Line comes from people feeling like they were sold a crock of sh*t. Especially since the jobs likely aren’t going to go to local folks.

  • Anonymous

    It should be forbidden by federal law to discriminate or refuse employment in a non-office/non-front store position to anyone for lack of language abilities, except for English.

    Provisions for local employment should be nationally outlawed as well, when any cent from the federal government is invested in a project.

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