By SAMANTHA GROARK
The St. Louis County Council recently voted 5-2 to end the requirement that contractors doing business with the County have apprenticeship programs approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. This decision is misguided and undermines the County ordinance designed to ensure that only responsible contractors are awarded public construction contracts.
Local governments finance thousands of jobs across our state with the millions of dollars they spend each year to purchase goods and services. Missouri’s competitive bidding statute specifies that public bids should be awarded to the “lowest responsible bidder.” However, local bodies often fail to articulate criteria related to responsibility. As a result, many contracting decisions are based chiefly on price. Low price closely correlates with low wages and benefits for employees, along with lower quality projects. This means significant costs for taxpayers.
RESPONSIBLE BIDDING POLICIES
ARE ‘INSURANCE’ FOR TAXPAYERS
Responsible bidding policies are ordinances or standards adopted by municipalities, school districts, and other public entities that set certain minimum standards for bidding on construction work.
Responsible bidding policies serve as a potential remedy for bidding practices that drive down wages, reduce health insurance and retirement security, discourage job skill training and competent safety programs, and inhibit community workforce inclusion. These policies may set standards for wages and benefits, skills training, compliance with state and federal law, among other items, and act as an alternative to the “just take the lowest bid” mentality by refocusing instead on the lowest responsible bid and by factoring certain community benefit standards into the definition of “responsible bid.”
These policies have been described as a kind of “insurance policy” for taxpayers.
St. Louis County has such a responsible bidding ordinance. It was enacted to protect taxpayers by setting minimum standards. It is a qualifications-based approach that works within the statutory low-bid system because it focuses in on the meaning of “responsible” when it comes to providing the highest possible quality at the lowest possible cost.
The purpose of the over two-hundred similar responsible bidding ordinances across the country is to ensure that local governments hire only professional, competent contractors that provide the highest quality workforce to complete taxpayer-funded projects safely, on time, and on budget. Case studies from across the country have found that these policies promote higher quality construction and reduced back-end reconstruction and litigation costs.
BENEFIT WORKERS, EMPLOYERS
Because of the benefits of apprenticeship programs, responsible bidding ordinances often require bidders to participate in a registered apprenticeship approved by the DOL. Registered apprenticeship programs provide intensive, structured safety and skills training, and combine practical on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. Apprentices “earn while they learn” and avoid taking on massive student debt.
For employers, apprenticeship programs are worth the investment because they produce highly skilled workers, reduce turnover rates, increase productivity, lower investment in employee recruitment, increase the diversity of the workforce and help to establish career progression.
For workers, an apprenticeship means significantly higher wages, better benefits, more competitive skills, and no student debt. According to the DOL, apprentices who complete their program earn approximately $300,000 more over their career than non-apprenticeship workers in similar fields.
Opponents of the apprenticeship requirement in the St. Louis County responsible bidding ordinance argue that it excludes non-union contractors, particularly female-owned and minority-owned contractors. Their reasoning is flawed because requiring high standards for contractors wishing to build public projects is race and gender neutral. Any private company can offer an apprenticeship that meets DOL qualifications —including non-union companies and companies with very few employees. All apprenticeship programs are privately run but recognized and overseen by the DOL. In fact, the DOL has recently made tremendous efforts in expanding access to non-union, privately-run registered apprenticeships.
HELPING MINORITY AND
Critics’ opposition to the apprenticeship requirement is even more flawed considering the County has already made great efforts to give women-owned and minority-owned contractors a leg up. In April of this year, the County unanimously adopted a minority contracting ordinance establishing standards for minority participation in County contracting.
Under the legislation, the county requires 24 percent minority-owned businesses and 9.5 percent women-owned businesses for construction.
The legislation also applies a five percent discount to bids from eligible minority- or women-owned businesses, and establishes management positions within the County to develop programs for growth of minority- and women-owned businesses, and a staff to oversee contract compliance.
BUILDING UNION DIVERSITY
Arguably, the most successful efforts to expand access for women and minorities in the skilled trades have actually come from unions and their signatory contractors, who have together invested tremendous financial resources in recruitment and training efforts.
For example, the Building Union Diversity (BUD) program is a local pre-apprenticeship program for women and minorities and helps prepare them for success in union apprenticeship programs. The BUD program was launched in 2014 to bring more minority and female workers into the union trades in a partnership between the Building & Construction Trades Council, the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council and the St. Louis-Kansas City Regional Carpenters, with funding from the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) and the Missouri Division of Workforce Development. This past August, the successful program graduated its 14th class of men and women who will go on to good-paying, skilled careers as apprentices.
MAKING SURE ALL CONTRACTORS
MEET THE SAME HIGH STANDARDS
The truth is that having an apprenticeship requirement in St. Louis County’s responsible bidding ordinance does not discriminate against anyone. Instead, it helps to level the playing field by making sure all contractors seeking public contracts are meeting the same high standards when it comes to providing quality safety and skills training. This encourages successful project delivery and ensures best value for taxpayer dollars.
More importantly, it ensures that contractors who are doing right by their workforce—by paying good wages and benefits and providing high-quality training—have a fair chance at winning public contracts.
Missourians overwhelming rejected “right-to-work (for less)” in August because we do not want to lower wages and standards. We do not want low-road contractors who do not provide adequate training to their construction workforces to win public contracts based on the lowest bid. This discourages high-road contractors that invest in their workforce and actively recruit women and minorities for high-quality training programs and lucrative careers.
The County should change course and re-focus its efforts on assisting minority- and women-owned contractors with compliance with the high standards established by its responsible bidding ordinance, including participation in registered apprenticeship programs.
The County should also join the City of St. Louis and Missouri Division of Workforce Development in supporting efforts like the BUD program to prepare women and minorities for careers in the skilled trades.
(Samantha Groark is a labor attorney at Blake & Uhlig P.A and previously worked as a communications assistant for the United Association of Plumbers & Pipefitters International Union.)