Mayor Byron Brown has done a lot of talking about the need to provide job opportunities for people of color. He’s pushed some 210 businesses and organizations to sign his “Opportunity Pledge” and spoken in favor of apprentice programs that give young workers a foot in the door of the construction trades.
The mayor, however, has failed to use a powerful tool at his disposal to promote diversity in the workforce.
City Hall under Brown has failed to enforce a law that mandates the employment of apprentices on city-financed capital projects.
“They do not enforce it at all,” said Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, who lobbied the Common Council to pass the law in 2006.
That law requires that apprentices perform 10 percent of the work on city-funded public works projects over $100,000. The work ranges from renovations to city facilities and sports venues to street and sidewalk paving projects.
Paul Brown, who has fielded criticism over the failure of trade unions to recruit more minorities, said it was “unfathomable” why city officials wouldn’t do more to implement the law. He says it could help remedy the problem by encouraging contractors and unions to recruit city residents as apprentices.
Investigative Post found record-keeping on enforcement of the law is spotty, at best. The data that’s compiled isn’t analyzed. Required reports have not been submitted to the Common Council. And it appears no contractors have been sanctioned for non-compliance. As a result, city officials don’t know whether the program is meeting its goals for apprentice participation.
The same law also sets goals for the hiring of minorities, women, and Buffalo residents on city-funded capital projects. The goals call for minorities to account for 25 percent and women 5 percent of employees hired by contractors. Overall, at least 25 percent of employees should be city residents, regardless of their race or gender.
The city does not compile the data, however, so officials can’t say whether those goals are being met, either.
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Common Council Majority Leader David Rivera has recently started asking the Department of Public Works for more information on the city’s compliance with the law.
“If you ask me, ‘should this have been done years ago?’ Absolutely,” he said. “It hasn’t been done.”
Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak acknowledged that his department’s enforcement of the law has been “inconsistent.”
“There’s been a disconnect and we want to correct that,” he said.
Paul Brown said the mayor is familiar with unions’ complaints about the lack of enforcement.
“We’ve approached him a million times and he’s come up with 9,000 excuses,” he said.
Opportunities for city residents
When the law was passed in 2006, it was heralded as a way to create opportunities for city residents and promote diversity in the construction trades.
Minorities at that time accounted for only 11.8 percent of membership of the region’s unionized construction trades. Despite a union pledge to diversify, that number declined to 11.2 percent by 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available. Minorities, meanwhile, account for 17 percent of the overall workforce in Erie County.
The lack of progress on diversity has prompted a push from some African-American leaders and activists to refocus on improving minority membership in the trades.
The apprenticeship law isn’t a cure-all for the under-representation of people of color in the construction trades, a persistent problem made worse by the disconnect between community groups and unions, as well as educational and structural barriers.
Nonetheless, there’s general agreement that building a reliable pipeline starts with apprentice programs.
“To get more minorities into the building trades, you have to start them off as apprentices,” Brown said.
If the city applied the law, Brown said, it would help the unions create opportunities by ensuring a steady supply of work for apprentices. That, in turn, would allow the unions to increase the size of their apprentice classes, he said.
In addition, working on city projects would allow apprentices—at least temporarily—to avoid a common obstacle, the need for a driver’s license and a car to travel to construction sites.
Another advantage is that the law allows the city to take advantage of privately funded apprentice programs, encouraging workforce development without extra spending.
“The City of Buffalo can capitalize on those resources simply by requiring that apprentices be on the job,” said Anna Falicov, an attorney representing the Building Trades Council. “It wouldn’t require reinventing the wheel, it’s already on the books and it’s been proven in other communities to create a pipeline to employment.”
Erie County has a similar law, with the same 10 percent apprentice participation goal, for construction contracts over $250,000. Soon after taking office, County Executive Mark Poloncarz reinstated the law—which had been suspended under Chris Collins— calling apprenticeship programs “a valuable tool” which “provide opportunities to residents in this area.”
Falicov said the county does far better on compliance than the city, according to her analysis of payroll records. “All of that could happen at the city level if there was more of a commitment,” she said.
The city sells some $20 million in bonds annually to fund capital projects. Projects in recent years have included renovations to the downtown baseball stadium and Hatch restaurant at Erie Basin Marina, construction of the splash pad at Martin Luther King Park, and improvements to the Marcy Casino at Delaware Park.
City officials acknowledge that their efforts to apply the law to those and other projects have been lackluster.
“It’s say fair to say the enforcement is inconsistent,” Stepniak said. “We have to get better at this as a city.”
Enforcement has two components: Contractors must confirm that they participate in a state-registered apprentice program and agree to have apprentices perform 10 percent of the work.
The city has fallen down on both.
In some cases, Falicov said, the city has given work to contractors who don’t participate in a state-registered apprentice program, making it impossible for them to meet the goal.
And when it comes to tracking apprentice participation, Stepniak said that although data on individual contractors is collected, it isn’t analysed.
Asked whether a contractor had ever been sanctioned for failing to meet those goals, Rivera said he couldn’t remember any cases where that had happened.
The law requires the filing of quarterly reports with the Common Council, but the Brown administration had failed to do so over the past decade until very recently after being pressed by Rivera. The Niagara District Council member has asked for more information than what’s included in the reports.
“We want to see the statistics, we want to see the numbers, we want to see the placements,” Rivera said.
The problems are due in part to understaffing. The city has just one compliance officer, responsible for analyzing the information contractors submit to make sure that the goals are being met.
“It’s an infrastructure problem within the bureaucracy of the city that they haven’t had adequate staffing,” Falicov said.
The law that requires apprentice participation also sets goals for the hiring of minorities, women and city residents. Stepniak said the department hasn’t compiled that data either and couldn’t say whether those goals were being met.
Stepniak said several steps are being taken to improve enforcement. They include hiring another person to work on contract compliance and tracking participation data more closely.
Also contemplated are changes to the law to emphasize that city residents should get priority for apprenticeship positions on city projects.
The city could also withhold payment from contractors if they don’t meet contractual goals, he said.
Asked about all the years enforcement and reporting appear to have fallen by the wayside, Stepniak said, “I don’t look at it as a missed opportunity; I look at is as getting prepared.”
Others are more skeptical.
“There’s been small improvements but it could go a lot further,” Falicov said.
Paul Brown said he didn’t understand why the city had lagged for so long on this.
“If the mayor were to make sure that this would get enforced, then, yes it would help a lot with the diversity,” he said.