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July 6, 2017
The city of Seattle in 2015 launched the Priority Hire program to get groups traditionally underrepresented in construction working in the field.
The program requires a minimum of 20 percent of all labor hours on city funded and managed public works projects with $5 million or more in construction costs be performed by people living in economically distressed neighborhoods in Seattle and King County. It also sets non-mandatory hiring goals for women and people of color. The program offers outreach, training and support services.
The city of Seattle said Priority Hire has increased diversity on its public works projects since the program began with a pilot on the Elliott Bay Seawall project in 2013. Through 2016, 21 percent of the people on its public works projects have come from economically distressed areas (compared to 12 percent prior to the program).
Also, 12 percent of the people on the jobs have been women and 26 percent have been people of color, compared to 5 percent and 25 percent, respectively, before the program.
Now the city is adding a new provision called Acceptable Worksites to all its public works contracts.
Nancy Locke, director of the city's Purchasing and Contracting Services division, said Priority Hire's success, reports of inappropriate behavior on city of Seattle and other local public agency construction worksites, and research suggesting that type behavior happens nationally — even internationally — has prompted the city to include the new provision.
The bad behavior locally has included racial slurs or inappropriate language, directed towards women and people of color, both business owners and workers, she said.
The Acceptable Worksites provision calls for appropriate, productive and safe worksites. It applies to all workers, not just Priority Hire ones. Contractors and subcontractors must agree to it for jobs bid as of April 21.
Locke's division, within the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, enforces Acceptable Worksites.
She said the city has good relationships with contractors and union officials so it can collaborate to remedy issues on a jobsite.
What the city can do
Under the contract provision, the city is required to monitor worksites for inappropriate behavior and discrimination. If it determines there is a problem, it can launch an investigation, interviewing workers and people who have witnessed the behavior.
It can take escalating corrective action, which can include requiring the prime contractor to fix the issue. It can give a poor performance evaluation at the end of project, or it can refer a worker to the city's Office for Civil Rights if it feels there is a violation. In severe situations, it can prevent the contractor from bidding on city public works for a certain period.
Violations of Acceptable Worksites are actions and language deemed offensive or harmful by a “reasonable person.” They include “but are not limited to” harassing, bullying or hazing behavior, offensive stereotypes or racial/gender slurs, and jokes or bad language regarding race, gender or sexual orientation.
They also include assigning undesirable tasks or unskilled work to trained apprentices and journey-level workers or giving dangerous work in disproportionate degrees to apprentices, women or workers of color.
Also prohibited is name-calling, cursing or unnecessary yelling; repeating harassing or harmful rumors; and refusal to hire based on race, gender or sexuality.
Also not allowed are references or requests to religious affiliation, gender affiliation or for immigration status or criminal background unless mandated by federal law. The criminal and immigration check aspects are part of all city contracts, not just public works ones. There are some exceptions for sensitive sites, such as police stations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 10.3 million people were employed in the construction industry in the U.S. in 2016. Of them, 9.1 percent were women, 28.9 percent were Latino, 5.8 percent were black and 1.9 percent were Asian.
Drilling down into those stats, about 8 million people say they worked in a construction occupation (such as electrician, carpenter, drywall installer or steelworker) or to a much lesser extent in mining. Of those, 3 percent were women and 34 percent were Latino, 6.8 percent were black and 1.7 percent were Asian. Those figures do not include top-level managers.
There is some overlap in the statistics. Many Latino people identify themselves as white. Also, women are counted for all races and ethnicities.
No specific guidelines
Sonja Forster, Seattle district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, said Acceptable Worksites is another of the many regulations contractors are subject to.
Forster said the AGC is looking at how contractors can implement the Acceptable Worksites provision. It duplicates what's already done on the jobsite “so compliance is not going to be an issue, but doing it the way the city wants is something we're looking into,” she said.
Forster said construction companies typically have robust anti-discrimination policies, workers are given information on their rights, managers monitor jobsite culture, and if there are issues, they're taken care of swiftly. “The managers are of a different DNA these days than they used to be,” she said.
Contractors don't want harassment or discrimination to cause workers to quit, she said. “All employees are valued, especially in a tight labor market.”
Forster said AGC of Washington is discussing with the city's Purchasing and Contracting Services division its remaining questions on implementation of the Acceptable Worksites provision.
Questions include: Is one complaint a violation and are there mechanisms to decipher valid complaints from invalid ones and procedures for complaints to be fairly investigated?
Forster said the language is very broad and there are no specific guidelines for contractors or workers. For instance, what does “include but are not limited to” mean in regards to prohibited behaviors?
Some contractors are also concerned, she said, that the requirement to forgo immigration or criminal background checks, except in certain circumstances, would interfere with their hiring policies.
Kevin Anderson, human resources manager for Seattle-based Gary Merlino Construction Co., said the industry takes jobsite culture seriously. He has worked in HR for nearly 20 years, five in construction, and said anecdotally it appears harassment incidents have declined.
Anderson said his company periodically updates its anti-harassment policy, trains managers to discourage harassment, and makes employees aware of their rights.
Large construction firms and some small ones generally have anti-harassment handbooks, he said. How well they communicate the policy to employees is going to vary company to company, he said, and companies without a dedicated HR person or office administrator may not be as thorough.
Anderson characterized the Acceptable Worksites provision as “a harassment policy with about two extra bullet points that generally haven't been addressed in harassment polices, which are the bullying and the hazing.”
The HR manager said he appreciates what the city is trying to do. But, he said, it should just have companies on its public works projects include the elements in Acceptable Worksites in their anti-harassment policies.
“It's well-intended but companies already have 95 percent-plus of this already in place,” he said.
The concern, he said, is that a company may not be made aware of harassment allegations so they can address them, and enforcement may be taken out of their hands.
Now, he said, employees have many avenues to voice concerns. That includes their manager, human resources and the company's owner. In the alternative, he said, there's the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, other agencies or an attorney.
Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.