Smallwood-Cuevas Advocates for Black Workers in the Billions Set Aside for Green Infrastructure

With more than a quarter of our state’s residents living at or near the poverty line, California is in a poverty crisis. This reality is even more severe for Black workers. Last summer, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 90% of unemployed U.S. citizens are Black Americans. Despite being less than 10% of the population in Los Angeles, Black people comprise over a third of all unhoused residents in the county.

Today, there’s new hope to help reverse these unemployment numbers in California, as billions of federal dollars are coming to the state to fund green infrastructure projects over the next decade. Through SB 150, a landmark bill that Governor Newsom signed last year, the state proposes that contractors overseeing these green infrastructure projects integrate equity hiring standards, which prioritize local disadvantaged workers. These provisions would not only benefit Black communities, but also give a chance to other underrepresented workers, like women, veterans and low-income residents. 

But because hiring goals and compliance requirements were never established in the bill, contractors have no incentives to conduct fair hiring practices. Not unless Governor Newsom signs SB 1340. 

Authored by longtime labor activist Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, SB 1340 is a results driven bill that would require companies working on large-scale state or federally funded contracts to meet equitable hiring goals. When publicly funded contractors are incentivized to comply with equitable hiring programs, an expansion of quality job opportunities will be made available to workers representing marginalized groups, including people of color, women and individuals from economically disadvantaged communities.

“With billions of dollars flowing from the federal government to California for green infrastructure projects, now is the time to address the need for equitable hiring and timely remediation,” said Emily Gartenberg, California Senior Policy Coordinator for Jobs to Move America. “California’s workers deserve action. With SB 1340, we can assure that an inclusive workforce will build our new green economy.”

SB 1340 would require contractors to regularly track and report workers hired on their projects to verify that they are meeting equitable hiring goals. These reports would aggregate data on the demographics of their workforce based on such factors as a history of unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, single parenthood and veteran status. These reports are critical to holding contractors accountable to actively practicing equitable hiring methods while meeting hiring goals set by the state.

Contract compliance programs like those required by SB 1340 are not new. Other states are getting ahead of California by setting aside dollars to ensure that there will be enough staff capacity to track and enforce equitable hiring standards on state-funded infrastructure projects. Why can’t Governor Newsom do the same?

Even in the past, public agencies like LA Metro have implemented similar equitable hiring programs for their major development projects. Before breaking ground on building the Crenshaw/LAX rail line, Metro adopted a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) that encouraged construction employment and training opportunities for workers from local economically disadvantaged areas. 

One local worker who benefited from Metro’s PLA is Patricia Allen. At the time, Allen was an unemployed single mother living in the Crenshaw area who was able to join a trades union after completing a labor apprenticeship program. Despite her qualifications, she struggled to find construction work. Allen attributed her job search challenges to the industry’s bias hiring practices. “Being Black and female, I found that a lot of construction sites don’t cater to Black people,” said Allen. “Just because we’re Black doesn’t mean we can’t produce or work as hard as the next person.”

Her fate changed several months later, when she visited the Los Angeles Black Worker Center to seek their help with getting work in her field. Soon after hearing her story, the center brought Allen to a roundtable meeting held by Metro, which had just launched their PLA for the Crenshaw/LAX rail line. Moved by her qualifications and eagerness to work, Metro officials swiftly hired Allen as a laborer on the rail project. She held that job for the next seven years, enabling her to purchase her own home. 

“It really felt good to see other faces like mine on the project,” said Allen, who now works as a safety supervisor for a construction company after earning her safety training certificate. “Without PLAs and other hiring programs, we’re not going to be able to get a fair chance to sit at the table.”

Because of Metro’s PLA, scores of other Black workers were able to work on the Crenshaw/LAX rail line as well as other rail projects across the city. In fact, over the course of the project, Black worker representation increased more than tenfold, rising from 2% to 23%. Metro made similar progress in recent years. Due to their strong enforcement and accountability measures, over 70% of the hours worked on Metro’s newly built Regional Connector in Downtown LA were by justice-impacted individuals. For the Westside Purple Line extension, 80% of the hours spent building the project were by those who were justice-impacted. 

Equitable hiring and compliance are not only moral obligations of the state, they are legal requirements. California has enacted a number of laws aimed at promoting fair employment practices and preventing discrimination. Compliance with these laws is mandatory for all public and private employers, including those involved in publicly funded infrastructure projects.

“SB 1340 is essential right now because communities of color have historically been deprived of the natural resources and investments needed to build climate change in ways that improve the conditions of all workers,” said Dawn Modkins, Director of the Southern California Black Worker Hub. “This bill is not just about building roads and bridges. It’s about building communities where all people can have environmental and economic justice.”

SB 1340 is currently being heard by the State Legislature, and if passed, will head to the Governor’s desk to be signed by June 30. To voice your support of SB 1340, please reach your state legislator’s office or call the Office of the Governor at (916) 445-2841.

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