A new light rail line extension in South Los Angeles promises to provide thousands of middle-class jobs. And advocates are lobbying for residents from low-income neighborhoods to get a fair shot at employment along the upcoming Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project, particularly in construction.
Construction worker Richard Douglass, 38, of South L.A., is one who is eyeing a job on the project. He's unemployed, looking for work and having a hard time finding it. Douglass has four kids, including newborn twins. He hasn’t worked since February and says he’s often at a greater disadvantage because of his background.
“I’ve been incarcerated before, but I’ve changed it all around for the better," Douglass said. "I graduated from my apprenticeship. I’m a journeyman union laborer out of Local 300, I do construction work. Hire me for my work ethic. I bring a good one.”
Douglass says being a hard worker may not matter. He says contractors tend to choose apprentices instead of journeymen for about half the money, or bring on workers they already know.
“The Crenshaw rail line, will you have your core crew?" Douglass asked. "Because that’s what I’ve been hearing. There’s no work for journeymen, we all have our core crew. How do I become part of the core crew then?”
That’s a question the Los Angeles Black Worker Center also wants an answer to.
The group – where Douglass volunteers – looks for ways to open up access to quality jobs on projects such as the Crenshaw line. The center’s focus is on jobs for people living in neighborhoods that the trains will one day zip through.
Lola Smallwood Cuevas, who runs the center, said “if we come together, if we have a smart strategy, if we understand how the industry actually functions, and then we collectively work across workers’ civil rights organizations, legal advocates, policy makers to say ‘what is a solution? And then to put those solutions in play.”
That’s also where Jackie Cornejo comes in. “Our goal is to make sure that public investment creates good middle class construction jobs," she said. Cornejo directs a construction careers effort for the advocacy group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy - or LAANE for short. It targets impoverished neighborhoods in L.A., Inglewood, Hawthorne, El Segundo – areas near the upcoming Crenshaw-LAX line.
“This is a project that is going to cut through the heart of the African-American community and there’s going to be opportunities to be able to increase amenities, provide housing” Cornejo said.
L.A.'s Metro Board of Directors is banking that a plan it enacted will pave the way. Last year it approved a project labor trade agreement and construction careers policy that requires contractors to fill 40 percent of the jobs from areas of high unemployment, including some South L.A. neighborhoods along the rail line. The mandate also aims to deliver at least 10 percent of the work to disadvantaged workers – such as veterans or people on public assistance.
Planners hail the policy as a first for a transit agency.
Nolan Rollins, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, said Metro has contracted with his organization to help initiate the outreach effort.
“We think it’s important to be clear about what opportunities exist, about what you need to do to be prepared for those opportunities and see how we as an organization can be helpful," Rollins said.
Rollin’s group and Metro are working with Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors to fulfill hiring goals. That's the company Metro awarded a $1.27 billion contract to for construction of the Crenshaw line. Planners say 3,000 of Walsh/Shea’s estimated 7,500 workers on the project will come from low-income areas.
Some community groups are skeptical. For example, the Young Black Contractors Association says this contractor and others have a history of excluding African-American workers on large construction projects. Walsh/Shea denies the allegation.
To ensure access, L.A. Metro says the contractor was required to hire a job coordinator – one approved by the agency with the ability to find skilled workers, including people who may not have completed an apprenticeship program.
Michelle Lopes Caldwell is Metro’s Chief Administrative Services Officer. She lists some of the requirements for the position.
“Contacts in the community, able to work with work source centers, L.A. Trade Tech, the union," Caldwell said. "It requires a great deal of outreach. Go to job fairs and beat the bushes to find workers we’re looking for to get on our projects.”
Whether that outreach effort helps unemployed construction worker Richard Douglass remains to be seen. He says to get hired on the Crenshaw-LAX line – or any other project – he'd consider taking a huge pay cut.
“I make $28.08 an hour as a journeyman," he said. "As an apprentice you start out around $15 and some change and you can work your way up."
Bottom line, Douglass just needs a job.
“Put this hard hat on, get dirty, get sweaty," Douglass said. "I want that money. Benefits. Know what I’m saying?”