Palm Beach County commissioners vowed Wednesday to create a task force to review whether they can strengthen local-hire requirements in county contracts, amid protests from hundreds union members and residents who argue too few local workers have been hired to build the county’s $600 million waste-to-energy plant.
The commission, which serves as the Solid Waste Authority’s governing board, said the task force would focus on regulations used by other governments to mandate that local residents are hired by companies that are awarded multimillion-dollar government contracts.
“As a county we need to get better and maybe follow the lead of some of the other municipalities that are working and doing things that seem to be getting our local people more involved in our work,” County Commissioner Shelley Vana said.
Union leaders point to St. Lucie County and several government units in Palm Beach County that they say require that one of every five workers hired by contractors have completed an apprenticeship program certified by the State or Florida and the Department of Labor. County officials could approve similar requirements, they argue.
Sean Mitchell, Ironworkers Local 402 business manager, said he was optimistic the task force would lead to more local jobs.
“What I can only hope is that they straighten up what they are doing with the out-of-state workers,” Mitchell said. “It is not a union/non-union issue. It is a local worker issue.”
The commission’s pledge came after hundreds of Palm Beach County union members protested outside the waste authority headquarters to argue that not enough of their ranks were hired by the contractor picked to build the waste-to-energy plant. The protest began at 8 a.m. — an hour before county commissioners were set to hold a regularly scheduled meeting.
Although the seven-member board was not scheduled to discuss the waste plant, many union members pleaded with the commission to change its practices during the public comment section of the meeting.
“We aren’t looking for a hand out,” Mitchell said. “We are looking for a hand up.”
Solid Waste Authority administrators said that KBR Inc., the Texas company responsible for hiring people to build the plant, exceeded the local-hire requirements of its contract. The contract requires that 20 percent of all skilled laborers and 70 percent of non-skilled workers hired for the project live locally. As of December, more than 37 percent of skilled workers and 92 percent of non-skilled employees were from the area, the authority said.
The authority can’t require the company to hire union members or increase the number of local workers on the job, authority administrators said.
Even so, county commissioners directed the authority’s executive director, Mark Hammond, to audit KBR’s local-hire numbers and verify they are correct. Under the authority’s contract, local workers hired by KBR are required to show their voter’s registration cards, their driver’s license number, or sign an affidavit proving that they live in the area.
“We have to go a little further than just show us some paperwork,” Vana said.
Mitchell, Ironworkers Local 402 business manager, said he ordered 400 white T-Shirts for union members to wear at the 8 a.m. protest. By 8:15 a.m., he said he had given away all but 50 of them.
The protest followed a full-page ad in The Palm Beach Post on Monday that said 63 of 75 cars in the project’s parking lot on Dec. 15 had out-of-state plates. The ad urged readers to contact county commissioners to tell them to hire local tradesmen. Ironworkers Local 402 and the Green Collar Task Force paid for the ad.
Ironworker John Mancini, a West Palm Beach resident who has been out of work for 3 1/2 years, was among those at Wednesday’s protest. Mancini said he relies on side jobs, such as painting and other home improvements, to pay his bills.
“How are they building that job with all of our tax money but they aren’t getting taxes from the people from Louisiana,” Mancini said.
Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group and its consortium partner, KBR, beat two other companies in 2011 to win the contract to build the waste-to-energy plant – which will burn up to 3,000 tons of trash a day and turn it into electricity while eliminating much of the waste deposited in the county’s landfill.
County commissioners awarded the team the contract despite complaints and protests from union leaders who warned jobs would be given to out-of-state workers.
Mitchell and his members backed another company, Covanta Energy, because it pledged to give more jobs to local workers. Covanta’s bid, however, was $280 million higher than Babcock & Wilcox’s.
Riviera Beach resident Ferrante Smart said the union is also concerned that members would not find work on future county projects, including a long-awaited hotel planned next to the convention center in downtown West Palm Beach. Smart, an ironworker, said he has been out of work for six months.
“We want future projects,” Smart said. “We’ve got things coming up that we need to be considered for.”
Also inside: Waste authority awards garbage hauling contract. B8.