Four years after the City of Boston established more ambitious goals for equitable hiring in construction jobs, none of the city’s top projects hit the standard for hiring women and less than a third met the standard for hiring people of color, according to five years of city data obtained by GBH News.
Despite the new city standards meant to keep jobs local, residents have actually worked less on major projects, measured in the hours of labor. Local participation fell from 28% of hours in 2017 to 24% in 2020 — less than half the city’s 51% benchmark.
Priscilla Flint-Banks, who serves on the Boston Employment Commission that oversees the jobs policy, said adherence to the city’s hiring standards is “horrible.”
“We want to make sure that our people have jobs — that women have jobs — that Boston residents have jobs, Black people, Latino people,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense that we would have a law like this on the book for our ordinance, and it’s not being enforced.”
Enacted in 1983, the Boston Residents Jobs Policy set equitable hiring standards for both city-funded projects and privately funded construction that exceeds 50,000 square feet. Workforce goals for hiring minorities were initially set at 25% of the hours worked, 10% percent for women and 50% for city residents.
In 2017, city leaders upped the goals for minority hiring to 40% of hours worked, with additional increases to 12% for women and 51% for city residents.
Though the standards are higher, the number of projects actually meeting them is low. Of the top 150 projects in the last five years by hours worked, less than a third met racial equity goals, none met goals for women and three projects met goals for city residents, according to city data.
City officials and activists are frustrated that Boston’s construction industry doesn’t reflect its population, walling off jobs with secure wages and benefits and reinforcing systemic inequalities in income and opportunity.
Liz Skidmore, a carpenter and union organizer in Boston, said the lack of female participation is no coincidence.
“The city of Boston has not historically prioritized women when enforcing the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, and we need them to do a better job,” Skidmore said. “It can be done, which we’ve shown on other projects around the state, and it needs to be done at a higher level in Boston.”
Celina Barrios-Millner, chief of the Boston mayor’s Equity and Inclusion Cabinet, said taxpayer-funded projects in particular should benefit the community and the diversity within it, especially given the systemic barriers preventing women and people of color from entering the field.
At an Oct. 5 hearing reviewing the jobs policy, City Councilor Julia Mejia asked Barrios-Millner why certain contractors are able to continue working despite consistently falling short of city standards.
“How many times does a contractor have to break the rules before they are put on notice?” Mejia said. “What good is our [Boston Residents Jobs] Policy if we keep letting it fall through the cracks?”
Though the policy requires city agencies and contractors to report their hiring numbers, Barrios-Millner told GBH News, it doesn’t offer penalties for failing to hit the targets.
“What we can enforce with the ordinance is compliance with the reporting measures, not numbers of employees and/or percentage of workforce,” she said.
For non-compliance, the city can stop payment on city-funded projects if a contractor fails to report demographic workforce numbers, or impose fines of up to $300 per day for companies that don’t report their numbers on private and city-funded projects.
A recent GBH News investigation found no evidence that the city ever sanctioned a contractor for not meeting the racial equity and residence standards.
But a question looming over the city’s policy to boost diverse hiring is whether there’s even a sufficient pool of minority and female workers available to work.
It’s hard to enforce hiring women, residents and people of color, Barrios-Millner said, “because we can never prove” there were enough workers available in those demographics.
Construction companies disagree over whether there are enough residents, women and people of color who can be hired to do the work.
Suffolk Construction, which employs the largest number of union construction workers in Boston, contends there often aren’t. According to a company representative, Suffolk is trying to boost its hiring numbers to meet the city’s diversity targets on its “Parcel 12” project.
Situated near the Massachusetts Turnpike in Back Bay, Suffolk’s project will include nearly 400,000 square feet of offices, retail space and housing units. But it has not yet met any of the city equitable hiring standards. The project is just getting started with excavation, but so far, Boston residents have worked just 12% of the hours, and minorities have logged only 21% of the hours — a fraction of the city’s goals. Women have worked only 7% of hours, just over half of the 12% standard.
Others disputed Suffolk’s claim about a shortage of minority workers, saying that the labor pool exists.
John Cruz III, CEO of Cruz Construction, said his company intentionally hires workers of color from architects and engineers down to tradespeople.
“Yeah it takes a little more work, but they’re out there,” said Cruz, whose firm is a third-generation, Black-owned business. “To use that as an excuse is folly — it’s actually deception, and it’s racism.”
Cruz operates the third-generation, Black-owned business, which oversaw two out of the three major projects that hit the city’s metrics for residents: Roxbury’s Wayne at Schuyler and Dorchester’s Wayne at Bicknell, both income-restricted apartment building renovations. The company also met the city’s standard for people of color but, like every other top project, fell short on hiring women.
Cruz said the pressure to meet diverse hiring targets is often placed exclusively on the general contractor, but other players should be responsible for pursuing equity as well.
“They’re not doing their job, but neither are the developers who have an opportunity to get a Black architect, Hispanic architect, lawyers, engineers,” Cruz said. “It’s historically all been placed on the white contractor to make up the minority percentages needed on the job, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Among the biggest 150 projects, National Development’s project to build an apartment building called “7INK” on Albany Street in the South End came closest to meeting the 12% standard for female hours: Women have worked about 11.8% of more than 89,000 total labor hours.
Ted Tye, a managing partner at National Development, pointed to the gender diversity in the project’s leadership.
“Our project manager is a woman on the development side. We have a woman who is one of our key architects on the project. And we also have a woman who is one of our construction superintendents,” said Tye.
On the city side, advocates say there are key changes that Boston could make to get higher rates of compliance.
Skidmore, the Boston union organizer, said the city should be hiring more compliance officers to enforce the standards.
“There’s just been no relationship to when there’s a boom and the number of compliance officers,” Skidmore said. “There’s no way they can cover all the projects.”
Flint-Banks, the Boston Employment Commission member who is also the co-founder of the Black Economic Justice Institute, said the commission is currently looking into how to make the policies more enforceable, something a new city administration — and a mayor with “the will to enforce them” — could bring.
“Now’s the time for us to really come up with policies and procedures we could use to ensure that compliance and enforcement is there ... and it has teeth,” Flint-Banks said. “The only way I can think of stopping them is hitting them in their pocket.”
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the Suffolk Parcel 12 project is still in early stages of construction.
Daniel Kool and Lily Kepner are Boston University students.
To produce this story, GBH partnered with Boston University's Justice Media Computational Journalism co-lab, a collaboration between the College of Communication and BU Spark!, an incubator and experiential learning lab for computer science and engineering projects.
Carmen Sabrina Araujo, Murtadha Ahmad Al Bahrani, Daniel Dash, Jennifer Jordahl, Mahmoud Khalil, Richard Lee, Yagev Levi, Anqi Lin, Elisa Cordeiro Lopes and Ayca Solmaz contributed to this report.