FRESNO -- The prospect of construction jobs in the recession-weary San Joaquin Valley long has been a selling point for proponents of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
A controversy has arisen, however, since officials pledged in December to reserve a portion of those jobs for certain disadvantaged people.
In addition to veterans, former foster children and single parents, the classification includes high school dropouts, the homeless and people who have been convicted of a crime.
"There's another chapter in the high-speed fail saga, and I almost can't do this one with a straight face," Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said in a recent installment of "Are you kidding me?" a video series in which Jones vents political frustrations. "What a social engineering disaster this is going to be, and add to California's laughing-stock reputation."
A desire to help people facing barriers to employment has been a fixture of government thinking since the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's hiring policy is similar to guidelines adopted by several other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority last year.
The rail policy, contained in a request for proposals issued to contractors, calls for at least 30 percent of project labor to be done by people who live in low-income areas, with at least 10 percent of that work going to disadvantaged workers.
In union halls and unemployment offices, the project is followed more closely in the San Joaquin Valley than perhaps anywhere else in the state. The Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board is fielding so many calls from people looking for jobs on the project that it is preparing a rail-specific website to help screen applicants once construction starts.
"The question is, the task that we have, which I hope does not become a Herculean task, is that we have to be sure that the people we are going to refer over are competitive," said the Fresno work board's executive director, Blake Konczal. "The contractors don't have to hire anybody if they're not qualified, so our job is to make sure that the local people that we refer over are screened, that they receive adequate training, and that they're ready to go."
Konczal said he lobbied rail officials for a disadvantaged worker program for two years before its approval.
"The notion that this buffet of employment could go through this community, and we've got unemployed people who are starving ...," he said, "I knew we'd get it right because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, for the workers."
Another criticism has nothing to do with the policy, but with its inclusion in a broader agreement that even rail officials acknowledge is a form of Project Labor Agreement negotiated with labor organizers.
Under the broader Community Benefits Agreement, nonunion subcontractors could work on the project, but only if they agree to wage and working conditions typically afforded union workers.
Kevin Dayton, a former lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., which represents nonunion contractors, said the Community Benefits Agreement is exclusionary and the authority promoted its "disadvantaged worker" program only to divert attention from it.
"I believe that that particular policy was simply a front for what they really wanted to do, which was to require all of the contractors working on it to sign a Project Labor Agreement," said Dayton, now an independent consultant.