Last week, union leaders launched a public relations blitz to criticize what they said was too little local hiring by builders working for Palm Beach County government. In a newspaper ad and a public protest, union members singled out the Solid Waste Authority’s $600 million waste-to-energy plant, saying the company overseeing construction is hiring too few area workers.
Left unsaid was how many area workers would be considered enough. Texas-based KBR says it has hired far more local workers than its contract requires, though union leaders question the accuracy of its figures. Union leaders say county officials need to try harder to make sure as many local workers as possible are hired for future projects.
Most people agree that hiring more local workers is generally a good thing; they are more likely to reinvest their paychecks in the local economy. But trying to require companies to do so is legally fraught. Federal courts have ruled strict local-hiring mandates illegal because they violate a constitutional ban on states discriminating against residents of other states.
That’s not to say that cities and counties don’t try. For about three years, St. Lucie County has required contractors on county projects worth more than $300,000 to ensure that at least 20 percent of workers have completed a county-certified “apprenticeship program.” This is not-so-subtle way to require a certain percentage of local hires without actually saying so. Its legality is unclear.
Sean Mitchell, business manager for Ironworkers Local 402 in Riviera Beach, held up St. Lucie County’s program as a model for Palm Beach County. But the irony is that St. Lucie’s program would guarantee only 20 percent local hires. KBR says it is already employing locals at well above that rate: 37 percent of skilled workers and 92 percent of non-skilled workers. So for the SWA project, a program like St. Lucie’s would not have affected local hires at all.
When county commissioners narrowly chose KBR and a partner in 2011 to build the SWA’s plant, they chose them over another company that promised more local hires, Covanta Energy. But as The Post’s Jennifer Sorentrue reported, that company would have built and managed the plant for a much higher price – $280 million more over the 20-year length of the contract. Choosing that company would not have been fiscally responsible.
SWA officials were concerned enough about the issue to build the company’s local-hires promises into the contract. County commissioners have vowed to form a task force to study ways to encourage more local hiring. This is an issue worth studying, and county officials ought to take whatever steps possible to keep local dollars local. But doing so should not come at the cost of unjustifiably high construction contracts or constitutionally dubious hiring requirements.
for The Post Editorial Board