Trained home energy workers waiting for jobs

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Home energy efficiency is said to be growing rapidly, and yet nearly a year into a much-watched Portland pilot project, fewer than a dozen union-trained workers have found “green jobs” weatherizing homes.

Despite that, the program — Clean Energy Works Portland — is being looked at as a model, says State Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland). Bailey is overseeing a statewide expansion of the program. And backers in the U.S. Senate seek to expand it nationwide.

Two characteristics of Clean Energy Works Portland are getting praise: an “on-bill” financing mechanism that eliminates upfront costs for homeowners, and rules to ensure workers earn a living wage doing the retrofits. In Clean Energy Works Portland, homeowners get insulation and high-efficiency furnaces and hot water heaters, and pay for the improvements out of the savings on their utility bills. Meanwhile, young women, minorities, and ex-cons get “pathways out of poverty,” earning a living wage after learning weatherization and basic construction skills in union training centers. Contracts to do the work go mostly to women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

So far, though, the results haven’t kept pace with the promises. When the program was launched July 8, 2009, it aimed to retrofit 500 Portland homes in the first year. As of June 25, 107 homes had been retrofitted. Work is ready to start on 53 more; 260 are somewhere between turning in an application and signing the loan papers; and a final 100 will be recruited this summer using a different method.

“Expectations have been so high, but big structural changes take time,” said Clean Energy Works Portland Director Andria Jacob. Jacob said it took longer than expected to work out the program’s financing; the 500 retrofits are now expected to be completed by the end of 2010.

Six months’ delay might not matter, except that unions were rushed to train workers who have now waited as long as seven months without employment. They are mostly young women and minority workers new to construction, and were recruited by minority pre-apprenticeship programs with talk of steady work at a living wage.

“Last year they said, ‘You need to do a training program by the end of October, because the beginning of November they’re going to be hiring people,’” said Al DeVita, director of the Oregon Laborers Training Center. “Nobody got hired by the first of the year, and we had already finished two classes by the time one person got hired.”

Forty-six workers have now gone through the training at the Laborers’ facility near Corvallis. Just six of them have been hired by Clean Energy Works Portland contractors — even though participating contractors are required to hire all new workers from training programs the program designates.

To get the designation, training centers must partner with at least three women or minority pre-apprenticeship programs, and ensure that a majority of its trainees are women, people of color, residents of low-income communities or other disadvantaged people. The Laborers’ weatherization program was the first to get that designation, on Feb. 8. A similar program offered by the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute was the second, three days later.

The Carpenters’ three-week training program has had similar results: 24 workers trained, with only a handful employed. Mt. Hood Community College is looking to enter the program as a third designated training facility.

When Clean Energy Works Portland was being developed, Laborers and Carpenters union representatives were enthusiastic partners. They spent months in stakeholder meetings crafting a community workforce agreement that sets a wage and benefit floor for workers (currently $15 an hour), and enables a union foothold in a market that’s said to be on the cusp of rapid expansion.

Under the agreement, contractors must stay neutral if workers seek to unionize, and must recognize a union if a majority of their workers want to join one. But no contractor has been unionized in this way yet. Instead union organizers are trying to persuade contractors to sign union agreements, selling them on the value of skilled union workers, an economical benefit package, and ready access to workers — when they need them — through the union hiring hall. None of the 12 Clean Energy Works Portland contractors have signed on so far.

An exception to that is the pilot project’s final “neighborhood” phase — a bright spot from the union standpoint. While the first 400 homeowners come from throughout the city, the final 100 will come from the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland. Clean Energy Works Portland is paying the faith-labor-community group Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG) $20,000 to recruit in that neighborhood. For those 100 homes, the subcontractors doing the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical work of installing furnaces and water heaters will be signatory to Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, Plumbers and Fitters Local 290, and Electrical Workers Local 48. And the weatherization work itself will be done by six contractors that have signed the equivalent of a project labor agreement with the Laborers: EcoTech, Chick of All Trades, Sustainable Solutions Unlimited, Faison Construction, Balanced Energy Solutions, and Abacus Energy Solutions. Their workers will receive the Laborers’ newly-set residential weatherization union scale when they are retrofitting the 100 houses in the Cully neighborhood: $16 an hour, plus $4.45 an hour in benefits. They’ll also be Laborers union members temporarily — for the duration of the work.

To partner with Clean Energy Works Portland, the two unions had to change the way they normally work. Ordinarily, union training centers train only union apprentices, and trainees then find union employment or are dispatched to union-signatory contractors by a union hall. But in this case, the training centers — with funding from union workers and contractors — are training workers who are not union members, and who are then hired by nonunion contractors.

“We agreed with the City to make a good faith effort to supply all these non-union employers with people from qualified training programs,” DeVita explained. “We want to give these employers a positive customer service experience with unions because we want them to sign with us.”

“It’s a stretch by the union, and a stretch for us too,” said Marshal Runkel, weatherization division director at EcoTech — the first weatherization contractor to sign the project labor agreement. Runkel said weatherization contractors have expressed reservations about working with organized labor, concerned about flexibility. But Runkel saw the ability to quickly add qualified workers as a selling point to working with the union.

DeVita says the Laborers will be scaling back training until the jobs catch up to those already trained. Contractors in the neighborhood phase are expected to hire 15 of them. DeVita remains hopeful the work will come along eventually, and in the meantime, the union is trying to build positive relationships with contractors.

DeVita says Labor Press readers who are Portland homeowners should sign up for the program — and ask that the work be done by union contractors. That’s not technically possible now, except on homes in the Cully neighborhood, but demanding the work to be done union can’t hurt.

Typically, loans of around $10,000 will pay for improvements that save 20 to 30 percent of a home’s energy use — and increase the comfort and value of the home. Homeowners pay back the loans over 20 years, at 5.99 percent interest, on their gas and electric bills. If the home is sold, the on-bill loan transfers to the new homeowner. Homeowners apply online at www.cleanenergyworksportland.org.

For the pilot project, Clean Energy Works Portland combined a federal stimulus block grant with other sources of financing to total $4.5 million. That money, in effect, is being loaned to homeowners to fund the improvements. Program managers had hoped to get $75 million in federal funding to ramp up the program. Instead, the federal government came through for $20 million, with the requirement that the program expand to three other areas in the state: Hood River, Astoria, and Klamath Falls.

And U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), are proposing to expand the model elsewhere, hoping to attach the proposal to a jobs bill in Congress.

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