Spokane Journal of Business

Construction apprentice mandate raises ire

Mayor aims to gather more community feedback

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-—Judith Spitzer
Spokane Mayor David Condon says he hopes input from a stakeholders group will help iron out problems with a controversial new ordinance affecting local construction companies.

Spokane contractor associations are presenting a united front against an ordinance passed by Spokane’s City Council last month that mandates an apprenticeship program for contractors and subcontractors working on public works projects costing more than $350,000. 

Kate McCaslin, president and CEO of the Inland Pacific Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc., says she believes the ordinance will drive up the cost of construction for the city and make Spokane a more challenging place to do business. 

“This ordinance is unnecessary and burdensome,” McCaslin contends. “The city council, none of whom are contractors, think they know what’s best. These are people who have no idea about the construction industry.”

ABC represents almost 300 Spokane members who work in construction and related fields.  

The ordinance, sponsored by Council President Ben Stuckart, passed at the Dec. 15 City Council meeting by a 5-2 margin after the Council heard more than 30 people speak for and against the new ordinance. 

Beginning July 1, the new law initially requires that 5 percent of the total contract labor hours of each project be performed by apprentices enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship program. The 5 percent requirement increases to 10 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2017 and beyond. The ordinance says noncompliance will result in “a penalty equal to 30 percent of the highest paid craft hourly rate on the … project as determined by prevailing wages for each unmet labor hour to be imposed by the director on each contractor or subcontractor who violates the provisions….” 

Stuckart says he sponsored the ordinance to help resolve the problem of the lack of a trained workforce in Spokane, especially given the number of public works projects the city expects to complete over the next five years. 

“I sponsored the ordinance because we have a shortage of skilled workers,” Stuckart says. “We have to be doing all we can do by building up apprenticeship programs. This will pay huge dividends to the community.”

The ordinance says companies that don’t adhere to the law may be barred from working with the City in the future.

McCaslin was one of more than 30 people who testified before the ordinance passed at the December meeting, among them several construction apprentices, union representatives, and residents. 

“We’re very discouraged. This ordinance will drive up the cost of construction for the city,” McCaslin also questioned why Spokane Mayor David Condon didn’t veto the ordinance. 

Condon sent the bill back to the Council unsigned, which essentially has the same effect as signing the legislation, says city spokesman Brian Coddington.

In early January, Condon announced he is putting together a group of community stakeholders to discuss the ordinance and how best to train workers for construction careers.

Cheryl Stewart, executive director of the Spokane-based Inland Northwest chapter of Associated General Contractors of America, who also spoke at the December meeting, says she agrees with ABC’s McCaslin.

“There are too many restrictions, fines, and penalties,” Stewart says. “It will prohibit contractors from bidding on future work with the city if they don’t have apprentices available. And now there is enough private work that they don’t have to bid on city projects.” 

That said, Stewart says AGC encourages the use of apprentices. 

“We host two apprenticeship programs of our own. And we need a way to pull younger people into the industry. We have an aging workforce. We need to train new people and work on getting them into industry apprenticeship programs,” she says. 

Stewart says she talked with Stuckart and made recommendations to other council members as well. “A lot of what we said, they listened to, but apparently it wasn’t a sufficient argument for them not to do it,” she says. 

She adds, “It’s not necessary. This is our (industries’) problem.”

Carol Krawzyk, a lead organizer with the Spokane Alliance, a group of 30 “faith-based, union, and community” organizations, says her group was integral to the process of putting the ordinance together. 

“Our group shares in the issue and we want to strengthen the quality of jobs here. Hopefully, businesses will follow the (the law) and after a year we’ll assess how it’s going,” Krawzyk says.

She says about 20 members of the group attended last month’s City Council meeting, many of whom were apprentices who spoke in favor of the law. “Apprenticeships help young people start a viable career, and hopefully, it will help them stay in Spokane,” she adds. 

The group Condon plans to convene will consist of veterans, people with disabilities, women, minorities, people with criminal records, and young people, as well as contractors and union and business representatives, he says. 

“Among the stakeholders are also people from labor and education,” he adds. “We will approach how to get people in a conversation about specific proposals to recruit, train, and employ a deeper and more qualified workforce.”

Condon says he wants to ensure that competition is not discouraged during implementation of the ordinance. During upcoming discussions, he says, he plans to focus on what role city residents, veterans, youth, women, minorities, and others should play in strengthening the community’s workforce.

“The ambiguity is causing quite a bit of consternation among those that provide jobs for all of our citizens, whether they live in the city or not. It really highlights the need in this case,” he adds. 

Condon says he has several problems with the new ordinance, including how quickly the law went from idea to implementation. 

“I would imagine that’s why the City Council president decided to postpone it to an implementation date of July 1, but before that time we need to develop a process and matrix, whereby we apply this policy so it’s clear and transparent to our citizens, and to those who work here,” he says. 

“From the associations, we need to get feedback … the city has to hear concerns facing job growth, and we want to hear comments about pushing local contractors out of competing. That would cause me great concern,” he adds.

Stuckart says he questions why Condon didn’t veto the ordinance if he didn’t agree with it. 

AGC’s Stewart says virtually all 150 to 160 members of AGC’s chapter here are opposed to the law, and she holds out hope that Condon’s stakeholders group may offer some solutions. 

“I’m committed to work with this group,” she says. 

Stewart says stipulations should have been set as goals rather than requirements, and she argues that penalties shouldn’t be written into the law, and that the city should make allowances for a good faith effort.

Stuckart says he heard similar comments along those lines from contractors he’s spoken with, but he adds, “If you make it voluntary, people don’t do it. If you (just) set a goal, people don’t do things.” 

Condon says he and the shareholders group plan to take the new ordinance, and develop policy that gives credit to employers who are hiring in different realms. 

“We have be looking at different training programs out there and how does the city give credit to those that are hiring, or are part of a multitude of programs that develop a workforce in  hiring veterans, people with disabilities and how do we do that,” Condon says. “What apprentice programs are in existence now? There are a multitude of other programs that are focused on minorities and veterans.” 

He says, “These are all questions that I had hoped we could develop together (with the City Council). We did it with the water and sewer discussions. It took us well over one year to 18 months to develop a very successful program with a major issue in our community, but we did that collaboratively.”

“On this one,” he says, “we now have an ordinance and it’s dumped in the administration’s lap to do the policy. Which we will. And that’s why I want to involve the community in this.”

Judith  Spitzer
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Reporter Judith Spitzer covers technology, mining, agriculture, and wood products for the Journal. A vintage-obsessed antique collector in her off hours, Judith worked as a journalist in Colorado and Oregon before joining the Journal.

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