Even the best intentions won't compensate for a flawed government quota system. The St. Petersburg City Council has made significant changes to a proposed local hiring ordinance, but the result only underscores how problematic the idea remains. The City Council, which could cast a preliminary vote as early as today, should reject this idea and consider other ways it might encourage local hiring. This feel-good proposal will simply increase bureaucracy and taxpayer cost and could discriminate against some workers.
The proposal before the council would require contractors who win city construction jobs worth $2 million or more to set aside at least 25 percent of all work hours for unemployed or underemployed Pinellas County residents. They will also be required to aspire to hire apprentices from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Manatee counties for another 20 percent of work hours.
This is an improvement from the original plan, which the council set aside in November, that would have required 50 percent of all work hours to go to Pinellas County residents and another 20 percent for apprentices and disadvantaged workers. It would have required $150,000 in taxpayer money be spent to hire a consultant to study the construction industry's hiring practices before implementing the program.
The expensive study of dubious value is now gone from the plan, but other costly requirements remain for winning contractors — costs that will inevitably add to the bottom line of projects for taxpayers. Contractors will be required to document their efforts to hire in Pinellas and prove, through record-keeping, that they have succeeded in meeting the quota. Exactly what penalties non-complying vendors would face would be determined later as the city implements rules to enforce the plan.
Another change also highlights pitfalls when establishing even the best-intentioned quota system. To qualify as an unemployed or underemployed Pinellas resident, workers would need to prove they have been unemployed for 30 days, have worked less than 1,200 hours in the previous 12 months or come from a household with less than 80 percent of the area median income. But after qualifying just once for the program, the worker retains that designation — and preference for hiring — for five more years regardless of his or her more recent work history. So is someone out of work for just 15 days less in need of a job than someone else who was unemployed three years ago?
There is little doubt that this proposal means well. And it is always encouraging to see citizens — in this case the interfaith social justice group Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST — come together to seek solutions for the city's less fortunate residents. Nor is this to suggest that the council shouldn't explore other, less stringent ways to encourage winning bidders to mine the local labor pool for projects like the upcoming $50 million Pier demolition and replacement and the $50 million police headquarters project. But this scheme goes too far, remains too arbitrary, would increase costs and create more bureaucracy.