Race and construction: Who gets the jobs?

August 2, 2012

Tony Arnold

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One of the most serious opportunity gaps when it comes to race is around who gets jobs. The unemployment rate for African Americans in the Chicago area is more than 17 percent--nearly twice the rate for whites. For Latinos, it's around 13 percent. With numbers like that, most governments around here still have programs to get more minority contractors into the hiring pool.

As part of our Race: Out Loud series, we ask: Are opportunities for construction work equal among different races and who monitors these programs to ensure fairness?

Next time you’re stuck in traffic because of road construction, check out how diverse the workers are. Or look at who’s on the scaffoldings when you pass a new building being built.

 
“If the major contractors did not have to have minority participation, they would not”
- Melvin Clark, minority contractor
 

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo are talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. What would it sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity?


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On Chicago’s South Side commuters are bracing for next year when the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line shuts down for reconstruction, But for all the anger or annoyance commuters might have, others see it as an opportunity to get in on some big money.

Earlier this week he CTA and the Urban League put together a and greet for minority contractors so they could get face time with representatives of some of the construction giants – the ones who get a lot of the major jobs.

Well over a hundred people came out. Some were just looking for a job – even though it wasn’t a job fair. Others were subcontractors with a special skill.

Almost everyone was African American.

DEREK ANTHONY: What I’m looking to get is either a business opportunity or a job on the project. To be included on this South Side big money project.

GALE BROWN: A lot of minority contractors have been left out. Ok? And it’s a known fact and it’s very sad about that.

MELVIN CLARK: It’s also important that we also hire people to make sure our workforce looks like the ridership.

MICHAEL EVANS: You have to network and get out to functions like this to find out about different projects.
 
Michael Evans does electrical work and runs Evans Electric. He says he’s worked with the CTA before…on security cameras at El stops.
 
Minority contract goals are nothing new.
 
Chicago’s program was created in 1985 to spread out the work and to give people who have historically been discriminated against a fighting chance for contracts. But after decades there are still questions as to whether the programs are doing what they’re supposed to do.
 

Evans says for minority-owned firms like his, the minority participation goals, "They get you to the table. But ultimately it comes down to what you do once you get there."
 
The CTA expects that the Red Line project will cost about $425 million dollars. And of that, it wants 25-to-30 percent of the value to go to minorities. That’s about average for government contracts around Chicago.

 
But three African-American Congressmen recently accused Metra of being racially insensitive for not setting higher local goals on a bridge and rail repair project running through Englewood.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush led the charge.  "That was shameful and disgraceful on its face. And therefore, we went into action," he said.
 
When Metra awarded the $93 million dollar contract to Elgin-based IHC Construction, Rush held a news conference with the president of IHC, David Rock.
 
It was an event made for the media but hardly any reporters attended. ABC 7’s Charles Thomas was there and asked Rock…
 
THOMAS: On the bottom line, are there going to be people from Englewood, African-American people from Englewood, actually out there working on this job?

ROCK: Yeah, I do believe there will be.
 
Still, Rush and other organizers seemed skeptical. Several times they said that they’d be tracking Metra and IHC Construction to make sure they’re following through on promises. That level of distrust is also common from minority business owners. And they aren’t the only ones who wonder if the execution is even close to the intent.
 
"The answer is, don’t know if it’s working," said Joe Ferguson, the city's inspector general who has spent the last few years investigating the City of Chicago’s minority contracting system. In two harshly worded reports – one in 2010 and another in 2011 – Ferguson detailed fraud and mismanagement. He says most of his time and staff could be aimed at just this issue.
 

Ferguson’s reports zeroed in on the fact that Chicago wasn’t tracking how many women or minorities actually got contracts. It was tracking just the goals set at the beginning of projects. So if a contract said it would have 25 percent minority participation, Ferguson couldn’t say whether that number actually panned out.

He also found that goals for minority participation were unrealistically high. And he found that not enough was being done to crack down on front companies – firms that said they were minority-owned, but didn’t do any work.
 
These reports come as unemployment rates for African-Americans and Latinos remain far above those of whites. And Ferguson says all those flaws have consequences.

"What we’re talking about on some level is a program that involves the expenditure of billions of dollars in taxpayer money on the one hand and maybe one of the two or three most important socio-economic and social justice issues that exist for any major city. And yet we’ve never examined whether or not it’s actually doing what it’s supposed to do," Ferguson said.
 
Ferguson says in the last year and a half, since Rahm Emanuel became mayor, some new efforts could help turn things around.

Jamie Rhee heads the city’s Department of Procurement. She says Ferguson’s critical reports have been signposts for improvement. Rhee says since most minority contractors run small shops, a new city program will block large firms from bidding on smaller contracts. Another gives incentives to companies that use products assembled in the city.
 
"What we have to make sure is that everybody has equal access to government. Again, that it’s fair. It’s open, transparent," Rhee said. Rhee also says her department has visited more than 60 construction sites this year to make sure the rules of the contract are being followed.

"I think we can always do more and the mayor is committed to that. We will never stop improving this program," she said.

But Inspector General Ferguson says the responsibility to get minority contractors a fair share of the work doesn’t stop with Rhee, or even the mayor’s office. He says the City Council should be doing more to see if people from their wards are getting an equal crack at jobs from public building projects.

"When our office, for example, issues a report that says there is pervasive fraud and when you have indictment after indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s office of crooked contractors based on investigations done by our office, there should be hearings held. There should be questions asked," he said.
 
But Ferguson says Chicago aldermen haven’t held one public hearing looking into the fraud he’s documented.
 
One alderman said they bring up issues at annual budget hearings and minority participation comes up on individual contracts at some council meetings. Alderman Walter Burnett says the City Council has tried to make improvements. But he says pressure to legislate tighter rules sometimes hurts legit minority contractors because then they have more red tape to work through.
 

"It makes us push legislation that makes it even harder for minorities to even be certified ‘cause of the guys who did the fraud," Burnett said.

 Jorge Perez, who runs an organization that helps mostly Hispanic contractors, say fraud or no fraud, minority contracting programs get work to people who might not otherwise be employed. Because when it comes down to it, the attitude of most every black or Latino contractor interviewed for this story said that without minority requirements, they would not get the jobs.

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