Mississippi River Bridge Project Employment Disparity Stings for African American Community Hit Hard By Recession
"I myself don't choose to be a third generation welfare mother. I want to work in the field that I'm trained in," says Dent.
Updated 12:35 p.m. with comments from IDOT spokesman Josh Kauffman
Updated again 3:40 p.m. with comments from Kauffman outlining IDOT's strategy to improve minority participation.
Tiama Dent is a single mother of two children and a graduate of the Illinois Department of Transportation's Highway Construction Preparatory Training program.
The eight-week program was created in 2008 to help ensure that minority workers are given the opportunity to work on big projects, such as the $700 million Mississippi River Bridge project.
And yet, out of the program's 178 "pretty much all" minority graduates, Dent says that few are currently working. Which fits into IDOT's math. Minorities make up 99 percent of East St. Louis, but account for just 23 percent of man hours worked on the Mississippi River Bridge project.
"To sit back and let our skills go to waste and to watch our young men go back to the street corner is ridiculous," she says. "This is a 100 percent black city that is suffering from crime and poverty and it's just not enough."
The Great Recession hit the African American community particularly hard, reverberating in cities like East St. Louis. Nearly seventeen percent of African Americans are unemployed, which is more than double the rate of whites. So it can be discouraging for an African American construction worker to see the jobs from a $700 million project, paid for by state and federal funds, mostly go to out-of-towners.
"I myself don't choose to be a third-generation welfare mother," says Dent. "I want to work in the field that I'm trained in."
So she'll be protesting September 16, likely alongside hundreds more including Mayor Alvin Parks and local community leaders, in a march from East St. Louis City Hall to an undisclosed construction site, demanding increased minority participation on the bridge project.
IDOT asserts they're not doing anything wrong. On federally funded projects such as this one, minorities must account for 14.7 percent of the hours worked -- a requirement easily met. But Parks, according the Belleville News-Democrat, argues that the law, enacted in 1966, is outdated and not a viable standard.
He and leaders of the Metro-East Black Contractors Association are asking for 50 percent minority participation on the bridge project. Dent says that they are also requesting that IDOT provide work for 30 percent of the prep program's graduates, many of whom will be marching.
IDOT spokesman Josh Kauffman says that a quarter of the training program's graduates have been placed in union positions at construction-related jobs. Whether or not they are working, he says, is up to contractors who hire them-- IDOT's role is simply to give them the best chance of getting a job by training them.
"IDOT intends to continue its efforts to improve minority participation as much as possible," says Kauffman. "We are dedicated to increased minority participation on this job as well all jobs across the state."
When asked what strategies IDOT plans to implement to increase minority participation, Kauffman mentioned several on-going IDOT initiatives, such as providing contractors incentive to hire graduates from the training program, meeting with contractors to encourage workplace diversity, establishing a confidential hotline to allow workers to report potential fraud on a project, and implementing their Target Market program, which sets aside 30 percent of funding for minority-owned and female-owned firms.
When pressed to explain what "incentives" IDOT will use and how they plan to "encourage" contractors, Kauffman couldn't provide details. Additionally he could not say what percentage of the total workforce lives in the Metro East area, although he did state that 85 percent of the minority workers were local.
This isn't the first time the region has seen protests for minority employment rights. From the time Percy Green climbed up the side of the Gateway Arch in 1964 to the time Al Sharpton blocked I-70 in 1999 to the time Jamilah Nasheed sat on the MetroLink tracks in 2003, racial disparities on government works projects have been a consistent fault line in St. Louis.
In all of those cases, the two sides eventually found compromise.