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State lawmakers consider how to translate infrastructure spending into careers for Delawareans

Mark Fowser
Delaware Public Media

State lawmakers are considering a proposal to give labor organizations a more direct hand in setting working conditions and hiring on public works projects.

State Rep. Larry Lambert (D-Claymont) says with more than a billion dollars in federal infrastructure investments coming to Delaware, his bill would help create apprenticeship and career opportunities for Black Delawareans and women, who are substantially underrepresented in the building trades

The bill would require agreements between the state or private contractors and labor unions on large public works projects. The agreements would set working conditions and reserve apprenticeships and jobs for women and other underrepresented groups.

Contractors could reserve 10 percent of jobs for their crew with the other 90 percent filled through union referrals. Labor attorney Ray Heinemann says that would also help ensure out-of-state contractors hire locally.

"If they’re coming from Pennsylvania, they’re not bringing their entire workforce in," he said. "They are going through the local union halls here in Delaware and we’re getting referrals. Through our apprentice programs, we’re developing a local construction workforce in Delaware communities.”

Lambert and Heinemann argue that the bill wouldn't stop any contractors — out-of-state or local — from bidding on public works projects. Out-of-state contractors are relatively common for major infrastructure projects; in fiscal year 2021, for instance, 29 percent of the Delaware Department of Transportation's construction contracts went to out-of-state firms, and 37 percent of contracts have gone to out-of-state firms since the start of fiscal year 2022.

Delaware’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Department of Transportation oppose the bill, arguing negotiating agreements could slow down projects and add unexpected costs. OMB Director Cerron Cade argued before the House Labor Committee last week that negotiating the agreements could slow down or inflate the budget of vital construction projects.

“There’s no real insight as to whether these things will have to go back to bid if these folks can’t come to agreements," he said, "and there’s no real understanding yet as to whether there’s going to be a cost to what’s negotiated.” Cade also suggested that some unions might favor their members in neighboring states over non-union Delawareans during the referral process.

The House Labor committee released Lambert’s bill unanimously last week; it now heads to the House floor.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.