KEEPING THE HEAT ON SOLAR CITY
By Charlotte Keith/ Investigative Post
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.