What do Seattle residents see when they look at the ongoing $200 million Elliott Bay Seawall Replacement Project? Many see jobs. Amid the replacement of the 70-year-old seawall along the city’s downtown waterfront — the largest public works undertaking in Seattle’s history — workers are also restoring habitat, improving pedestrian access and replacing an existing roadway.
Everyone from 2016 presidential candidates to equitable employment advocates envisions jobs when they look at expanding and repairing America’s infrastructure. A 2015 Brookings report that examined such opportunities found that public works projects create “jobs [that] frequently translate into long-term opportunities for workers across all skill levels.” In Seattle, the city adopted a priority hire ordinance in January 2015 that requires a percentage of hours on city construction projects exceeding $5 million to be performed by workers living in economically distressed ZIP codes and sets aspirational goals for project hours performed by women and people of color. (Washington State prohibits public agencies from setting hiring quotas based on race or gender, so those targets aren’t binding.)
The seawall remake has the most diverse workforce on a city project yet. People living in economically distressed ZIP codes in Seattle or surrounding King Country make up 18.3 percent of the project’s workforce, exceeding a 15 percent goal. People of color worked 25.2 percent of all project hours, surpassing a 21 percent target. Women have performed 12.6 percent of hours.
Those numbers are staggering compared to the country as a whole, where fewer than 3 percent of construction industry jobs are held by women, and compared to the city’s past performance. An analysis of previous public projects revealed that only about 5 percent of project hours were performed by people living in identified distressed ZIP codes, and in fact that only 6 percent of hours were performed by people living in Seattle at all. The rest of the workers were coming either from King County, or as far as three counties away.
To Michael Woo, a long-time construction industry employee and community organizer, that was a wasted opportunity. He helped set the stage for the priority hire ordinance in 2011 while organizing unemployed residents of Seattle’s Rainier Valley, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Many out-of-work residents had previously done construction. “They were angry,” says Woo, “because the city was repaving the main thoroughfare right down through that ZIP code and none of the workers looked like them.”
Woo and others put pressure on the contractors, ultimately getting one local hired. They organized as the Targeted Local Hire Coalition, and tried to get community members work on the renovation of the Rainier Valley Community Center. They petitioned the city to, as Woo puts it, “give people consideration for jobs that are being paid for through public tax dollars.”
It worked. The city dug up those abysmal stats on past hires, and in 2012, it entered into a Community Workforce Agreement with local labor unions about the seawall project. Through it, the unions agreed to give priority to workers who live in neighborhoods with high poverty, high unemployment, and low rates of secondary education, rather than dispatching whichever workers had been out of work the longest.
The CWA also required that 15 percent of hours be performed by apprentices. Anna Pavlik, the city’s labor equity program manager, says, “One of the primary reasons we decided we wanted to do priority hire was because for those who are not college bound, the construction industry and apprenticeship offer a great career opportunity … . There are very few shop classes taught anymore in urban communities, and unless you know someone in the industry, you wouldn’t think of it as a career choice.”
Yulanda Rhodes certainly hadn’t intended to enter the construction industry when she went with her boyfriend to pick up his paycheck from a Seattle job site. She just put on his hard hat, because she knew she should in a work zone, and a female flagger came up and asked if she was ready for the job. Rhodes waved her off — she was just waiting for her boyfriend — but the woman persisted.
“She was like ‘No seriously, are you ready to work? We need women like you, women of color, minorities.’ That just stuck with me,” says Rhodes. She owns a hair salon, but after her encounter on the job site, she went down to the Local 440 and they signed her up for a pre-apprenticeship program with the nonprofit ANEW. After 12 weeks, she started her apprenticeship on the seawall, mostly cleaning up the job site and continuing to style hair on evenings and weekends. After 6,000 hours on jobs, she can become a journeyman, eligible for higher pay.
The seawall CWA set the stage for the citywide ordinance, which sets different quotas based on the type of construction. Five more eligible city projects are coming online, and one, the Buried Reservoir seismic retrofit, is already underway. Both Woo and Pavlik would like to see more regional entities like King County, the Port of Seattle and Sound Transit adopt similar policies to increase the impact on workers and make the requirements less confusing for contractors.
Seattle is in the midst of a construction boom, adding more construction jobs than any other metro in the country in 2014. Hiring grew by 13 percent, and contractors are scrambling to find enough skilled workers. The city can’t mandate hiring targets for private companies, but they can increase the number of women, people of color and people from struggling neighborhoods in the labor pool.
The ordinance provided funding for more pre-apprenticeship programs, and for community groups do outreach about construction opportunities. Rhodes is spreading the word too. She says working with mostly men can be “trying sometimes,” and she could make more money doing hair, but she loves the consistency of the work, and the benefits.
“Regardless of the sex we’re both out here for the money, you know what I’m saying, and we’re both out here working trying to provide for our families, and honestly I don’t feel like the men look at it like that,” she says. “We probably need more women for that to change.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.