City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young says a local hiring preference program could help reduce Baltimore City’s sizeable unemployment rate, which looms at 9.9 percent.

At the May 9 City Council meeting, he proposed a resolution that would charge members across five city agencies — the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, Baltimore Development Corporation, City Finance Department, Law Department and Office of Sustainability—to explore the feasibility of a city mandate that would require contractors to hire a percentage of city workers for projects.

The resolution was assigned to the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, and if enacted, the interdepartmental workgroup would deliver their findings at a public investigative hearing.

Young says a preference program would steer more jobs to unemployed city residents, while simultaneously enhancing Baltimore City’s tax base, ensuring dollars allocated to Baltimore projects flow back into the city. He pointed to a $40.5 million construction project to renovate the city’s aging sewage infrastructure. It is contracted to a New York- based firm.

Many out-of-state contractors bring their own workers, “and the tax benefits go back to that state,” Young asserted. “I’m tired of seeing men on the corners (in Baltimore City)…I want them working instead of ‘trapping’ and I went them helping to pay for services in the city.”

According to an introductory version of the bill, local hiring agreements could also diversify the city workforce base, as many unemployed residents in urban centers are people of color.

Since 2007, a Baltimore City executive order has encouraged companies to hire locally, and last year, Councilman Bill Henry, D-4, proposed a resolution that would have made the order legally binding. It stalled in committee.

Henry noted similarities between his old resolution and Young’s. The councilman said when he proposed an interdepartmental work group to mull over ideas for a hiring preference program last year, it fell through the cracks because his colleagues figured the resolution was tied to an unpopular proposal he had presented earlier—called the community partnership bill — that would have required contractors to hire Baltimore residents through local union halls.

“At the end of the day, the important thing is getting Baltimoreans back to work,” Henry said. “If we are spending money on work, we should be benefiting Baltimoreans as much as we legally can, especially with big contracts.”

Henry and at least 12 other Council members have signed on to Young’s resolution.

Several cities around the country have turned to local hiring preference programs, including Portland, Ore., which employs a work agreement that strives for an 80 percent local workforce. But some municipalities have experienced pushback in federal court.

In Milwaukee, Wis., residential preference hiring is required for contracts with the Department of Public Works, and unemployed or underemployed city residents must make up 40 percent of the agency’s workers. Opponents challenged the law, alleging it provides a disincentive for out-of-state contractors and results in less competition.

And in 2004, a federal appeals court upheld the Federal Highway Administration’s decision to withhold $700,000 from a Cleveland, Ohio, road project because of the city’s local hiring rules.

Eileen R. Youens, a government professor at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who specializes in public contract law, says the most successful constitutional challenges of local preferences stem from the Privileges and Immunities Clause, which rules it unlawful to discriminate against citizens simply because they are residents of another state.

Still, Youens says localities can elude the clause through carefully worded policies that reflect how the hiring preference would legitimately benefit the city beyond what the courts call the “purely protectionist reason.”

“And that means not just having the preference to make it harder for people from other states to work there and easier for residents,” she said.

She suggests that municipalities identify hiring goals rather than set quotas, requiring “contractors to make good faith efforts to employ resident workers rather than simply rejecting contractors who fail to hire a specific number of resident workers.”

Young’s team has already proposed to offer incentives or “points” for companies that hire locals rather than ordering them to hire locals.

Youens adds that preferences should be limited to unemployed, qualified workers, not just “anyone who doesn’t have a job,” and ideally, local hiring goals should be rooted in data that affirm how many out-of-state workers land jobs on public works projects when qualified unemployed residents are available. Hard data would clear most constitutional hurdles, Youens said, but is “pretty impossible to find.”

Young says it’s vital for the city to take steps toward local hiring preferences, and although he doesn’t wish to banish workers from surrounding counties, he wants to level the playing field for city dwellers. “You have to make sure you hire people locally and narrow the scope of where you pull from,” he said.


Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO