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Seattle considers making construction companies hire local workers

The Seattle City Council is looking at new rules that could require construction workers on taxpayer-funded projects come from within the city. (AP file)

With all the construction going on around Seattle, there's no shortage of opportunity for construction workers. But when it comes to city-backed projects, should those workers actually come from Seattle?

That's the question as the Seattle City Council looks to craft a new "local hire" ordinance.

"We have taken a look at some of the numbers for projects in the Seattle area and see that a lot of the people who work on our capitol projects, they not only don't live in Seattle, they don't live in King County," says Seattle City Council Member Sally Clark in an interview with KIRO Radio's Jason Rantz.

Clark chairs the council committee tasked with coming up with a solution that aims to bring together everyone from contractors to community members.

It won't be easy. While some complain it's wrong for city tax dollars to go to outside workers, others argue there just isn't enough skilled labor in the immediate area, and limiting contractors ability to hire from a broader region would drive up costs on big projects like roads and libraries.

Clark admits there are far more questions than answers, even after a coalition from different interest groups including builders, workers and policy experts issued a broad set of recommendations following months of meetings earlier this year.

Clark says ultimately, if the city is going to mandate companies hire local workers, then it's up to the city to make sure there are enough skilled workers for the job. And with forecasts calling for a shortage of skilled construction workers by 2019, she says the city needs to act now.

"If you want to train people, it's going to cost a little bit of money," Clark says. "I would argue that the cost of leaving large segments of our city under-trained or untrained and really struggling to make ends meet is much more expensive in terms of what we have to spend in the social safety net."

There's also the question of what constitutes "local." Clark says her committee needs to make the regulations broad enough to ensure contractors can find the workers they need in what's dubbed an adequate "workshed."

But Rantz worries the effort could create an unworkable and overly expensive policy that hampers growth.

"I don't think we should mandate that bids include workers that come directly from the neighborhood," he says. "I understand the good intentions behind this but the fact is, every neighborhood is different. Why put the burden of this rule on a neighborhood that has a great employment rate? We're just making it harder to get the best contractor that will do the best work for the smallest financial investment. I do, however, favor job training programs so long as they're producing the desired results and spending tax dollars efficiently. "

Clark acknowledges another challenge is reaching a compromise that keeps it feasible for both union and non-union contractors to bid on work without forcing workers to join a union.

"We've got to find a way that it works for both to participate, otherwise we'd be in trouble in terms of our other goals of making sure that small business people and minority and women-owned businesses also are competitive with city work," Clark says.

There is no timetable for passing the new rules. But activists tell The Stranger they're worried something needs to get done before budget talks begin in earnest in September, or the effort will get tabled for the time being.

The Jason Rantz Show on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM

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