Council Member Sally Clark sponsored the priority hire bill.
  • Josh Bis
  • Council Member Sally Clark sponsored the priority hire bill.

In a city where just 6 percent of employees on big publicly funded construction jobs actually live in the city limits—and just a quarter live in the county—the Seattle City Council is poised to approve new rules forcing contractors to hire more local workers from traditionally disadvantaged groups.

A low proportion of local workers on construction jobs matters for a bunch of reasons, from the health of the local economy to factors like pollution and traffic. So, city leaders started thinking about—and convening a committee about—requiring more local workers on city-funded construction projects. Council Member Sally Clark says that legally the city couldn’t outright require a certain percentage of workers to be from inside the city, so instead they chose a goal of wanting to see more people who were racial minorities, women, or from poor communities work on city-funded projects. Then they built a policy to get more people from those groups hired.

“There’s a little bit of a dreamer quality to this,” Clark says. “Plenty of people all over the city need be employed and need a chance. The city is increasingly more expensive, and if I want people to stay this is one way among many.”

The bill approved yesterday in the council’s Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee requires at least 20 percent of the work on city projects costing more than $5 million to be done by people from economically distressed zip codes. Eligible zip codes are those with high numbers of people who are unemployed, don’t have college degrees, and live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bill also allows for more apprentices to be used on city projects, and over the coming year, the council will pursue more ways to get people into apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs to feed the “pipeline” for construction trades, Clark says.

Under the new rules, contractors will enter into agreements with the city allowing them to bring five employees from their own workforce before filling the rest of their crew with other workers who will be dispatched by local unions. In a committee meeting Thursday, Council Members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant tried to decrease that number from five to two or three, arguing five wouldn’t bring enough new people from disadvantaged communities into city jobs because contractors could simply use five-man crews they’re already using.

“The efficacy of this ordinance—we should expect it to be limited if we put this five number in place,” Sawant told the group.

But Council Members Clark, Mike O’Brien, and Bruce Harrell defeated that effort, arguing that allowing five so-called "core workers" gives contractors more flexibility—which is especially important when those contractors are "WMBEs" (women and minority business enterprises). Plus, the 20 percent requirement still applies, so workers from minority communities will still be required on projects. In other words, if a company only needs five employees and brings all five from its already-existing workforce, one of those still has to be from a designated zip code.

“This is a landmark social justice bill to keep jobs in Seattle,” said Council Member Bruce Harrell in a statement released after today’s vote. “We are trying to create a new pathway that has not been there before.”

The bill also creates an ongoing advisory committee, which will report to the mayor and council each year. The full council will vote on the measure at a 2 p.m. meeting Tuesday.