Yesterday, I posted about how business owners in the Central District say that they rarely see construction workers of color on the city's 23rd Avenue overhaul. The city, meanwhile, says the project actually has better hiring diversity numbers than similar projects have had in the past.
Now, data from the the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department shows that both of those perceptions are partially true.
Here's the deal:
The city has a law, known as "priority hire," meant to hire more diverse workforces on city-funded projects by requiring contractors to hire workers from "economically distressed" zip codes. But that law isn't being applied to this project because of a loophole dealing with how the project is funded. Instead, the city says the contractor on the project is voluntarily abiding by the rules. According to the city, about 32 percent of the hours worked on the 23rd Avenue construction have been completed by people of color.
"I don't know what they've got on paper," Seattle King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson told me Monday when I told him about the city's numbers. "I know on the job, they don't got no people of color."
Here's the catch: While most of us associate diversity on a construction project with the number of non-white workers employed on the project, the city measures diversity data under its priority hire law based on hours worked, not number of workers. What that means is priority hire goals can be met by relatively few people.
"We often hear the community concern that there are few people of color on projects, even as our statistics show significant increases from past projects," says FAS spokesperson Julie Moore in an email.
There are a few issues at play here.
First, workers of color are working more hours than white workers on the 23rd Avenue project. According to the city, the average white worker hired by the lead contractor on that project worked 143 hours between June and December 2015. But the average person of color on the project worked 273 hours in that same timespan. So, just because 32 percent of the hours on the project were completed by people of color doesn't necessarily mean 32 percent of the workers on the project are people of color. In fact, only about 26 percent of the workers on the project are a racial minority, according to city data. (Most of the minority workers are Hispanic, black, and Asian, according to the city's figures. Another 5 percent are classified as "unidentified.")
On top of that, because of structural inequities, people of color may be less likely to have the types of jobs that will get the most hours on a project like 23rd Avenue. Women and people of color are historically less likely to be recruited into the trades and then given longterm jobs that provide the seniority necessary to earn them journey-level status (meaning they've completed an apprenticeship program), Moore says. If workers of color aren't trained for the highest level spots on projects like this, they'll end up in jobs that don't get as many hours. (Moore's analogy: "If you’re building a house, the workers constructing the framing are likely to be on the site for much longer than the workers installing carpet.")
For example, Moore says there are 12 black workers on the 23rd Avenue project out of 190 total. Those 12 have worked about 2,300 hours total, but one black worker logged 1,310 of those hours. The other 11 averaged 92 hours of work each. When few people of color are trained for the most demanding jobs, those few workers end up getting most of the hours. And that can contribute to the way the project looks to passersby.
The lack of women and people of color in the pipeline for construction jobs is an issue the city is trying to address by partnering with training groups and community organizations. But it will take time. Beyond the recruitment process, pre-apprentice training lasts a year and apprentice training another four, according to Moore.
The result is that the project is doing well on the hours-worked metric the city uses, Moore writes, “even though the worksite itself may not look more diverse at any given moment."