KEEPING THE HEAT ON SOLAR CITY 

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By Charlotte Keith/ Investigative Post

         (Inset) Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and Charley Fisher III.

         (Inset) Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and Charley Fisher III.

Although the SolarCity plant is meeting its reduced minority workforce goal of 15 percent, to date it’s largely through the hiring of workers from other minority groups – not African Americans

Diversity hiring goals set for the construction of the SolarCity plant in South Buffalo have not translated into a lot of jobs for African-American workers. While African Americans make up an increasing share of the project’s workforce, they accounted for only 5.7 percent of those on the job for the quarter ending this September. That’s in a city that’s almost 40 percent African-American and a county with a workforce that’s 11 percent Black, according to the state Department of Labor. The project is nevertheless meeting its minority workforce goal of 15 percent, largely through the hiring of workers from other minority groups – in particular, Native Americans. 

The proportion of African Americans on the SolarCity construction site does not sit well with some community leaders and elected officials.“It’s not right to see these numbers and only have small totals for African Americans,” said Charley Fisher III, chairman of the Contract Compliance Review Committee, an organization recently formed to advocate for more diversity on local construction projects.

“The African-American community in Buffalo is close to 40 percent. Here it sounds like African Americans aren’t even 40 percent of the minority workforce.”  Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, said the relatively low proportion of African-American workers at Riverbend was due to the makeup of the trades that have been working there so far, in particular Operating Engineers and Ironworkers – unions in which Black workers have not traditionally been well-represented. That explanation doesn’t sit well with Fisher, who is also president of B.U.I.L.D of Buffalo.  “There is not a fair representation of African Americans and other minorities in the trade unions, period,” he said. 

Minorities made up 11 percent of the local construction unions in 2012, according to a census conducted by LPCiminelli as part of the Buffalo schools reconstruction project; that census does not provide a more detailed breakdown by racial group.

Low Proportion of Black Workers

Two numbers put the employment of Black construction workers at SolarCity into perspective. While they make up an increasing share of the workforce, they accounted for only 5.7 percent of those on the job from July through September, the most recent period for which numbers have been compiled.  As a result, African Americans made up less than half of the share of the minority workforce at SolarCity. Of the roughly 200 minority workers on site over the summer, 42 percent were Native American, 38 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. This despite the fact that African-Americans are by far the largest minority group in both the City of Buffalo and Erie County.  

“Government can create opportunities for job creation and workforce participation, but cannot mandate results, especially by ethnic or racial composition,” an Empire State Development spokesman said. “That would be establishing quotas, which have been ruled unconstitutional.” So, while the minority hiring goal is being met overall, some community leaders and elected officials say the project’s workforce should better reflect the makeup of the city.   “If you said that you’re meeting the goals on minority participation and it’s a Buffalo project, people expect to see a larger number of African Americans,” said Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant. She said the low African-American workforce participation figure is “unacceptable.” 

 Mayor Byron Brown, who last month defended hiring practices at SolarCity on the grounds the project was meeting its overall 15 percent minority hiring goal, did not respond to an interview request. Paul Brown, of the Building Trades Council, said he expects more African Americans on the job for the duration of the project as other trades start work on the site. “It should increase tremendously, because you know there’s different trades on there now, there’s a lot of plumbers, electricians,” he said. 

Slow Start, Site Cleanup

The project is now exceeding its minority hiring goal, with minorities working 16 percent of hours through the end of August.  That comes after a slow start: minorities had worked only 8 percent of the hours worked on the project during the first eight months of work, through the end of December 2014. But, as more contractors started work, the share of hours worked by minorities gradually increased, reaching 15 percent for the project to date in May this year and holding steady since. 

One reason for the initial lag in diversity was the nature of the early work at the site, said LPCiminelli spokesperson Kevin Schuler. “On the earliest contracts, it was a small crew doing site work related to soil-testing and exploratory excavation,” he said. “For a good four to six months, that was all that was happening. The project only really kicked into gear in December.” 

Progress towards workforce goals is tracked by counting the hours worked by each individual, based on certified payroll. Empire State Development, the agency tasked with overseeing the project, also requires contractors to document, on a quarterly basis, the racial makeup of their workforce during that period. 

Those records offer a headcount and provide a breakdown of the participation of different minority groups, but do not take into account hours worked. Using these records, Investigative Post previously reported that minorities made up 6 percent of the construction workforce from the start of work in May 2014 through March 2015, based on the most up-to-date figures Empire State Development would release. State officials refused to provide more up-to-date records until the end of October. LPCiminelli officials subsequently provided a detailed, updated breakdown of the workforce, taking just a week to share figures that Empire State Development took about three months to release. 

Differences across contracts

Of the 16 contracts with more than 500 hours worked – the point at which Stephanie Pennington, LPCiminelli’s director of compliance, said she expects the goals to be met – 10 are meeting the 15 percent goal and six are not. Of those six, three were contracts performed early on in the project. Compliance with diversity goals is calculated as an average once the project is complete, so falling short in one month, or on one contract, doesn’t matter as long as the goals are met overall.

The updated numbers, however, have not mollified those who argue that the project should have retained the 25 percent minority hiring goal agreed on when the city sold the Riverbend site to the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office subsequently announced the goal in two press releases. 

The goal was later lowered to 15 percent in an agreement between the local construction unions and developer LPCiminelli. Empire State Development said in a statement that the 25 percent goal was simply “aspirational.” The change drew fierce criticism from African-American leaders, who in October rallied in protest of the SolarCity work site and have staged a series of community meetings since . 

Fisher and Grant created a group to advocate for greater diversity in construction jobs and to hold contractors accountable for diversity goals.  “There’s billions for Buffalo – but for whom?” Fisher said. “It can’t be just for a small circle of connected people. It’s got to be fair.” 

Investigative Post is a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. You can find its work at InvestigativePost.org, and through its partners, including WGRZ, The Public, WBFO and Capital Pressroom.


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Solar City and Beyond: The Call to Action Continues!

Organizers of Solar City Protest Rally Announce Weekly Planning Meetings

ORGANIZE! Organizers of last Friday’s Call to Action and protest at the Solar City construction site have announced weekly planning meeting to begin this Thursday.  third eye photo

ORGANIZE! Organizers of last Friday’s Call to Action and protest at the Solar City construction site have announced weekly planning meeting to begin this Thursday.  third eye photo

Charley H. Fisher, president of B.U.I.L.D. of Buffalo organization and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant have announced that they will host weekly strategy and planning meetings to address the lowering of the minority hiring goals at Solar City and other publicly funded construction projects in and around the City of Buffalo. 

These meetings will be held at either the newly named Buffalo Empowerment Center, 1327 Jefferson Ave. or across the street at the Frank E. Merriweather Library when it is available. The first meeting will be held on Thursday, October 15th, 6-8 p.m. the 1327 Jefferson Avenue address.

"I am extremely happy that a group of ten or more not for profit or activists' organizations from the east and west sides of Main Street have banded together to advocate for our Black and Brown 'brothers and sisters' who may be havingdifficulty in getting into an union apprenticeship training program or getting hired on the many construction sites and projects around the city," said Fisher.

These meetings are open to the public and former and present minority contractors, M/WBE's businesses and construction workers. Allare invited to attend these meeting to share insight and testimony regarding the lack of adequate ethnic diversity in the construction trade. For more information, contact Charley H. Fisher @ (716) 650-8889 or Betty Jean Grant @ (7160 602-5877.

The announcement of the weekly planning meetings come on the heels of last Friday’s protest and rally outside the Solar City Plant being built on South Park Avenue. The “Call to Action” was held after it was revealed that minority hiring goals were decreased from 25% to 15% without public notification or input. 

The rally for inclusion, fairness and jobs- which drew nearly 100 people – took place despite a press conference called by Mayor Brown, who shared data which said that minorities have done 16.2% of the work on the site from the start of construction in May 2014 through July of this year, “exceeding the workforce diversity targets” set for the $900 million solar panel factory. 

 When complete, Solar City will be the biggest solar panel plant in the Western Hemisphere when it reaches full production during early 2017. Amid chants of “No Justice No Peace” and “No Jobs, No Peace!”  demonstrators on Friday called on LP Ciminelli, the main contractor at Solar City, to raise the hiring goal to 25% for minorities.

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant is calling for an independent monitor to keep track of whether minority and women hiring goals are being met at the construction site. At this point she said there is no outside monitor and “you can’t have the developer monitoring itself.”

The only thing needed on the East side, to quote the late Bill Gaiter, is jobs, jobs, jobs!” said one of several speakers at the rally, Rev. Kinzer Pointer oftheConcerned Clergy of WNY. Saying“you can’t play games with numbers” and referring to the poor minority hiring as “immoral, criminal and unjust,” he admonished. “Someone needs to tell the governor this is not acceptable!” 

John Washington, community organizer for PUSH BUFFALO, declaring that   “Buffalo is more segregated than Birmingham Alabama,”   said “we live in a racist city” and lamented how the Buffalo billions had been racially applied “I’m only 30 and I’m tired!”

“This is a crime scene…that’s being repeated all over the nation,” activist and radio personality Jim Anderson said in reference to the construction site. “We don’t need City Hall to sign a pledge of words…we need them to sign a pledge for jobs! We’re going to get some jobs or shut it down!” “In order for there to be peace there has to be justice,” Anderson continued. “Where there is not justice, there is no peace!”

Bishop Michael Badger, Pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church,  calledfor jobs,equityand quality education for our children. “It can’tbeONE BUFFALO if the East Side doesn’t have the same opportunities (as other areas).”  He called for an even greater minority hiring goal. “Governor we need you to establish goals of at least 30% on Solar City….Mayor, you don’t get a pass either. An economic roundtable does not give jobs!”

 Bishop Badger said this communitywas looking for Mayor Brown “to raise the goals” instead of saying its ok to drop the goals.