FRESNO The prospect of construction jobs in the recession-weary Central Valley has long been a selling point for proponents of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
A controversy has arisen, however, since officials pledged in December to reserve a portion of those jobs for certain disadvantaged people.
In addition to veterans, former foster children and single parents, the classification includes high school dropouts, the homeless and people who have been convicted of a crime.
"There's another chapter in the high-speed fail saga, and I almost can't do this one with a straight face," Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said in a recent installment of "Are You Kidding Me?" a video series in which Jones vents political frustrations. "What a social engineering disaster this is going to be, and add to California's laughingstock reputation."
A desire to help people facing barriers to employment has been a fixture of government thinking since the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal. The California High-Speed Rail Authority's hiring policy is similar to guidelines adopted by several other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority last year.
The rail policy, contained in a request for proposals issued to contractors, calls for at least 30 percent of project labor to be done by people who live in low-income areas, with at least 10 percent of that work going to disadvantaged workers.
In Fresno County, where the unemployment rate still hovers above 14 percent, the effect of thousands of rail project jobs could be significant. In union halls and unemployment offices, the project is followed more closely in the Central Valley than perhaps anywhere else in the state. The Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board is fielding so many calls from people looking for jobs on the project that it is preparing a rail-specific website to help screen applicants once construction starts.
"The question is, the task that we have, which I hope does not become a herculean task, is that we have to be sure that the people we are going to refer over are competitive," said the workforce investment board's executive director, Blake Konczal. "The contractors don't have to hire anybody if they're not qualified, so our job is to make sure that the local people that we refer over are screened, that they receive adequate training, and that they're ready to go."
Konczal said he lobbied rail officials for a disadvantaged-worker program for two years before its approval.
"The notion that this buffet of employment could go through this community, and we've got unemployed people who are starving ," he said, "I knew we'd get it right because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, for the workers."
Opposition to the rail authority's new hiring policy is partly ideological. Jones scoffed last week at "some of the liberals up here in Sacramento" and said that "when you're building a high-technology system like this you should be hiring the people that are most qualified, not the most disadvantaged."
Another criticism has nothing to do with the policy itself, but with its inclusion in a broader agreement that even rail officials acknowledge is a form of Project Labor Agreement negotiated with labor organizers.
Under the broader Community Benefits Agreement, non-union subcontractors could work on the project, but only if they agree to wage and working conditions typically afforded union workers.
Kevin Dayton, a former lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., which represents non-union contractors, said the Community Benefits Agreement is exclusionary and that the authority promoted its "disadvantaged worker" program only to divert attention from it.
"I believe that that particular policy was simply a front for what they really wanted to do, which was to require all of the contractors working on it to sign a Project Labor Agreement," said Dayton, who is now an independent consultant.
Rail officials are reviewing proposals from five consortiums seeking to build the first section of the rail line, a 30-mile stretch from Madera to Fresno costing as much as $1.8 billion.
Jeff Morales, the authority's chief executive officer, said the Community Benefits Agreement will expand access to non-union subcontractors, not limit it. The large firms bidding to lead construction have pre-existing contracts of their own with labor unions, Morales said, and the Community Benefits Agreement is necessary to ensure that non-union subcontractors could be hired.
But Nicole Goehring, government affairs director of the Associated Builders and Contractors' Northern California chapter, said many non-union contractors won't bid under restrictive conditions of the agreement.
"For your qualified, skilled workers who might be able to bid it but don't happen to be in the union," she said, "they now have to, their employers have to sign on to these union workforce rules in order to be able to have an opportunity to work on the job."
The rail authority's hiring policy is one of several policies designed to keep project money in California. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed legislation last year requiring the rail authority to "make every effort" to buy trains and related equipment from manufacturers in California.
Such policies, Morales said, could lure engineering and manufacturing firms to California, creating "a rail industry similar to the way aerospace was such an important driver of the state's economy in the '50s and '60s."
"We've got unemployed, skilled workers in the Central Valley where we're going to be doing construction," Morales said. "Let's do everything we can to try to get those people back to work, train other people to take on the kind of work and generate as many jobs and help make a dent in that unemployment rate in the Valley."
The rail line is proposed to begin in June or July in the Central Valley and expand outward, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco within 15 years. The authority still must acquire land for the project, and long-term financing remains uncertain.
At the job center in Fresno on a recent day, dozens of unemployed people filled out applications, practiced interviewing and searched for work.
Lon Martinez, who has been unemployed for six years, said he had worked as a construction inspector and tested hazardous materials for an engineering firm before being laid off six years ago.
A felony conviction for a burglary he said he committed while living in a park likely qualifies Martinez as a disadvantaged worker, and he said he will apply for a job on the rail project.
The government is already spending money on him by providing him food stamps, Martinez said, and he would rather work.
"I was a good worker," he said. "I just hit hard times when the economy changed. That's all."