Government Demolishes Government Deconstruction Training Program

By Ken Ortiz

It sounded like a great plan… in cooperation with the Safer Foundation and the Delta Institute, and with a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, TRP’s educational arm, The ReUse Institute, would provide job training for 140 ex-felons in deconstruction methods and procedures. The Safer Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to reduce recidivism by supporting the efforts of people with criminal records to become employed, law-abiding members of the community. The nonprofit Delta Institute creates, funds and implements programs that promote a healthy environment, a strong economy and thriving, vibrant communities. For this program, Delta, which is also TRP’s warehouse partner in Chicago, would offer warehouse, retail and value-added training. The City of Chicago would supply TRP with abandoned houses, garages and city-owned properties to deconstruct.

This plan was originally proposed over two years ago by Sadu Johnson, then chief environmental officer for the City of Chicago and now deputy mayor of the City of Vancouver, Canada. Sadu was a big supporter of deconstruction for its environmental aspects and also realized how entry-level deconstruction training could help solve the problem of 10,000 ex-felons returning to the City of Chicago every year without jobs. A section of the July 2009, Chicago Green Jobs For All publication given out at a mayoral press conference reads: “Waste reduction is a key area that will create jobs for local Chicagoans. These are the types of jobs that cannot be outsourced and that can provide entry-level positions for people with little work experience or barriers to employment. An innovative partnership between the Safer Foundation, the Delta Institute, and The Reuse People of America is being developed to support the waste reduction goals of the City of Chicago and provide green jobs to disadvantaged job-seekers.” 

Bids were sent out and program specifications outlined. TRP was awarded one-half a contract to train 70 individuals. The specifications called for trainees to be paid $10.00 per hour and crew chiefs to receive $12.00 per hour.

Then the government got involved (in the government deconstruction program!) and the travesty began…

First, it was determined that the monies for the grant were coming from HUD’s allocation of Recovery Act funds. However, HUD rules prohibit demolishing any residential property without providing a replacement, which eliminated a significant amount of inventory from the training program. The city scrambled to find replacement properties, but the ones it found were too structurally dangerous. Then we were given city-owned vacant police and fire stations and commercial properties to “clean up” via limited deconstruction of nonstructural items. Work was delayed while the law department determined if it was environmentally safe to work on these properties because of the lead and asbestos issues. After agreeing to get an environmental report for every property we entered, TRP was back cleaning up the properties, but doing very limited deconstruction.

Then, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a ruling that trainees being paid with Recovery Act funds must receive prevailing wages, which for our trainees meant carpenter rates of approximately $35.00 per hour.

The result of government involvement:

  1. Deconstruction trainees failed to learn proper deconstruction methods and procedures.
  2. Since trainees were required to receive prevailing wages, only 21 trainees could complete the program instead of the planned 70.

Here’s another example of government involvement:

The city of Loves Park, Illinois contracted with YouthBuild in Rockford, Illinois to deconstruct seven buildings to make room for a new park. Rather than opt for demolition, which would have sent reusable lumber to the landfill, the city chose the more eco-friendly route of deconstruction and employed entry-level graduates from the local YouthBuild group, using a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. TRP consulted on this program. Trainees were being paid $10.00 per hour for a job expected to last 30 days. However, Carpenters Local 792 filed a complaint arguing that prevailing wages should apply to what amounted to a public works project. The Illinois Department of Labor ruled against YouthBuild, classifying the work of the trainees as equivalent to that of carpenters earning over $50 an hour. The city couldn’t afford the cost, so the buildings were demolished and sent to the landfill, and the trainees were out of a job and the opportunity to learn new skills.

To pay prevailing wages to trainees that don’t know which end of the hammer drives the nail and which end extracts it is an outrage. Prevailing wage laws are poor economics and poor policy. They restrict people from operating in a free market to allocate resources and use factors of production most efficiently. They retard job creation and training, and they contribute to lower economic growth. Enacted in 1931, the Davis-Bacon Act, which is the prevailing wage statute, was inherently racist in origin and continues to be. But that’s a topic for another blog.

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