Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Bill seeks better jobs access for women and minority contractors

A bill promoting greater access to state-funded projects for minority and women business owners and laborers was presented recently before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

Some 20 people, including elected officials, clergy, community advocates and representatives of business and trade organizations, testified on Oct. 18 in support of Senate Bill 1568, “An Act to Create Equitable Job Access,” introduced by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.

“This bill seeks to hit the goal of having a work force on our state-run projects more reflective of the diversity of our state,” said Chang-Diaz, whose second Suffolk district includes Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Chinatown and Jamaica Plain. “If taxpayers are paying for contracts, it’s important that all of our residents are sharing the employment and wealth these contracts create.”

The bill would effect three changes in the state’s labor laws: Massachusetts would adopt a formal goal of achieving gender and racial equity and local hiring on its contracts; state agencies would be required to evaluate companies’ past performance in diverse and local hiring when reviewing bid proposals; and work force numbers would be tracked throughout a project and reported on a public website, shining a light on whether contractors stick to their diversity and local job creation promises.

Minority representation in the construction industry has plummeted over the past few decades as reverse discrimination suits have erased the gains of affirmative action, said Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. He said he has been “shocked and appalled,” listening to stories from construction companies and subcontractors over the past few months.

He described some of the ways large companies have advantages in gaining contracts, and how they can shut smaller contractors out by deliberately underbidding. And for small subcontractors, he said, slow payment schedules can be devastating; with fewer reserves to pay their workers while waiting, some minority subcontractors have been forced to leave projects.

“Minority contractors are kept inside a small economic box,” Hamilton concluded. “They are not able to advance and expand.”

Boston has a city ordinance requiring 50 percent of jobs on city-funded projects to go to local residents, 25 percent to minorities, and 10 percent to women. The rule has helped to increase diversity on recent projects such as the Whittier Street Health Center and the Kroc Center in Roxbury. But this type of ordinance is a rarity, and it does not apply to state-funded projects.

Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson noted that the city ordinance, while helpful, tends to be interpreted as a “best effort” advisory more than a requirement. With this in mind, he lauded the sharper teeth of bill 1568.

The bill would require contract awardees to report work force data with each invoice, detailing payments to minority and women business enterprises and reporting the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of their Massachusetts work force. The state comptroller would post this data quarterly on a public website.

“In Boston, we have some great community members,” Jackson said, acknowledging an “army” of citizen volunteers who monitor diversity compliance in their community, “but we as a government should be putting practices in place so community members don’t have to do this.”

The state bill does not specify quotas. Instead, it mandates that Massachusetts make diverse and local hiring a stated goal. This, along with the requirement to assess contractors’ past performance, would give bidders on state projects new incentives to cultivate a diverse work force, said Chang-Diaz.

“Evaluation of past performance is so important,” she told the committee. “Time and time again, contractors have made lovely promises, but when the project is over, we see that the numbers didn’t come anywhere near what was promised. And by then it’s too late.” Without this scrutiny in place, she said, “we continue to do business with people who are lying to us.”

Longtime Boston community activist Mel King echoed the importance of the reporting requirement. He also stressed a more qualitative benefit.

“The other important aspect,” King said, “has to do with our young people believing this is something they can do. One of our issues is that our young people walk by sites and don’t see people who look like them on the job. And they don’t think this is something they could do.”

He challenged the committee members to think deeply about this.

“Which side are you on?” he asked. “Are you on the side of perpetuation of the racist, sexist denial of opportunity for folks, or on the side of what makes this country as great as we talk about it being?”

Others testifying in support of the bill included state Reps. Linda Dorcena Forry and Carlos Henriquez, Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and Brockton City Councilor-at-Large Jass Stuart; Marvin Venay, executive director of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus; Katie Lilgren, vice chair of the Massachusetts Tradeswomen Association; Hakim Clifford of the Boston Workers Alliance; Greg Janey, construction firm owner and representative of the Massachusetts Minority Contractors Association; Roxbury community advocates Travis Watson and Dorothea Jones; Chinatown advocate Lydia Lowe; and Fred McKinney, president of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council.

Several took pains to point out that no one is asking for a handout, just an equal chance. Chang-Diaz closed her testimony with emphasis on this theme.

“These contractors and workers just want a fair shot at competing for the work,” she said.

“It takes some intentionality to get our agencies and contractors to look up from the old résumés of the people they’ve worked with for decades,” she added, “and to look at new contenders — not new to the community, but new to these agencies. That’s what this bill is really about, giving some new people a shot.”

The Joint Committee will now examine the bill and the testimony. In a conversation after the hearing, Chang-Diaz said she was optimistic about the bill’s chances. There is no clear timeline for the next step, she said, but at the very least the Committee has to report favorably or unfavorably on the bill by March 2012.