Six thousand new jobs are coming to Massachusetts. We need them. But will they be good jobs?
Not unless we make the fast-growing home weatherization field a high-road industry.
The home weatherization industry in Massachusetts is about to explode. Over the next three years the state’s utility companies will put $1.4 billion into energy efficiency, creating some 6,000 construction jobs. Other energy funds will create thousands more.
Unhappily, these funds may be poured into jobs that are largely low-wage, low-skill, and low-future. Wage levels in Massachusetts weatherization programs are closely guarded information, but a study of the comparable residential construction industry in New York state found wages averaging $10 an hour. A Harvard study found that Massachusetts construction firms are illegally classifying their employees as independent contractors to avoid paying unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, Social Security and Medicare. A third study of three major US cities found that almost 13% of residential construction workers were being paid less than minimum wage, almost two-thirds of them were not being paid for hours they worked beyond eight hours a day, and more than half were denied meal breaks.
This last survey calculated that these workplace violations cost these workers almost 15% of their annual wages. Low-wage jobs are no bargain for the workers who work them.
Low-wage, low-road jobs also cost taxpayers. When employers don’t pay workers’ compensation, the state’s health insurance system picks up the tab for injured workers. Our taxes and premiums go up. And injuries are more common on these fly-by-night worksites. Likewise, when employers don’t pay unemployment insurance, laid-off workers and their families often drain the state’s emergency support programs. We all pay when employers don’t pay their workers a living wage.
The federal government recently made an effort to fix some of these problems. The Department of Labor set a prevailing wage for federally supported jobs in the new home weatherization field. But the rate is so low that workers weatherizing homes for the very-low-income Weatherization Assistance Program qualify for low-income assistance under that program.
Our dollars are paying for these programs. As taxpayers, we are funding federal and state weatherization work. As electric and gas ratepayers, we are paying up front most of the $1.4 billion that the state’s utilities are now investing. When wages and standards are low, we end up paying at the end of the job as well. And a low-road contractor walks off with the difference.
Luckily, there is another way.
A new report from the national Apollo Alliance and the Massachusetts Green Justice Coalition lays out some simple changes. The most important is a Responsible Employer Requirement that would make contractors comply with workplace laws, pay fair wages and benefits, classify workers properly, hire local workers, and use state-approved apprentice training programs.
This means higher wages, safer worksites, better training – workers and their families will benefit.
It means quality work and fewer re-dos for the same price – customers will benefit.
It means less turnover, higher-skilled workers, fewer absences – employers will benefit.
It means more tax revenues and fewer public subsidies and health care costs – Massachusetts taxpayers will save tens of millions of dollars a year.
It’s our money. Are we going to choose low-road jobs that end up costing everyone, or high-road jobs that will lift our communities out of the jobless recession?
Rich Rogers is secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council