Prevailing Winds

Local union prevails in disaster contract dustup with feds after October wildfires

In a victory for a local union force that lost some 30 homes to the North Bay fires, disaster-recovery officials in state and federal agencies hammered out a stop-gap contract
on Jan. 12 to keep them working—and to ensure that the North Bay stays on track for debris clearing from the October wildfires.

At issue were recent contracts and emergency task orders undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) with three national companies: AshBritt Environmental, the Environmental Chemical Corporation (ECC) and Ceres Environmental Services—and a locally trained union workforce, Operating Engineers Local 3, based out of Rohnert Park.

On Dec. 29, contracts were awarded to ECC to the tune of $475 million, and to Ceres for $160 million. The former contract, with ECC, was devoted entirely to the Sonoma County cleanup, while the latter was dedicated to similar efforts in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. The contracts would run through the completion of the debris-removal process, slated for February.

But the contract awards were protested by AshBritt, which was passed over in the big-dollar, longer-term contracts. In turn, the company filed a complaint with the Government Accounting Office that’s still being sorted out. That move forced the Corps to issue a suspension-of-work order for the two contracts just signed, which meant a potential shutdown of debris-recovery operations. In early January, the state Office of Emergency Services stepped in and signed a $200 million stop-gap contract with ECC, and work continued under a contract that honored the local prevailing wage for skilled workers.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore says that his understanding of the new ECC contract is that about $170 million is devoted to cleanup efforts in Sonoma County. He’s a big supporter, he says, of paying the prevailing wage to local workers. The victory for the Engineers Local, he adds, “absolutely” signaled the power of a regional union workforce to leverage an outcome with ACOE, with the support of other local union shops, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39. “Everyone has coalesced around the main idea,” he says, which is that the October fires represented the biggest cleanup effort in the region since the 1906 earthquake. “We are going to rebuild, and we’re going to rebuild capacity,” he says—which means, in part, “maximize local labor as much as possible.”

Chris Snyder, district representative for the Engineers Local, is obviously pleased that the local prevailed and that the state intervened to ensure that his workers were properly compensated and that their healthcare benefits were protected along the way.

Snyder’s view is that the best way to resolve any prevailing wage issue that may arise in the county is to pay it. The Engineers Local fields skilled local contractors who earn between $30 and $41 an hour, he says. Among other tasks, they run heavy equipment and deal with the removal of hazardous materials. “It’s not bad money,” he says, “but remember, they are part-time,” he says. “We are kind of like Uber.”

Since the fires, the union has trained several hundred heavy-equipment and hazmat-certified workers, he says, and there was grave concern back in December that they’d sit on the sidelines while a lesser-trained and underpaid workforce hired by outside companies arrived on the scene of one of the worst wildfires in state history.

“We’re doing what we can do to make sure we have a local workforce available,” says Snyder. “So far, it’s been fairly successful. We are trying to do what we can to support the Corps and their mission,” he adds.

The intersection between a strong local labor movement and large, national-disaster-recovery companies has been administered by the ACOE, which has standing contracts with those firms and operates as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In this manner, the ACOE is prepared to issue emergency task orders after a disaster, which it did late last year. The Florida-based AshBritt and the Burlingame-based ECC were issued emergency task orders for two months last Oct. 27 under what’s called the Corps’ “advanced contracting initiative,” to jump-start the recovery process. Those task orders paid the prevailing wage.

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Snyder chuckles when asked whether a robust regional labor presence—which has, for example, pushed for wage equity in the so-called Fight for $15—had anything to do with the favorable outcome.

“I don’t know if we have any sway over them,” he says. “There’s a saying: ‘There’s God, and then there’s the Corps.’ They have a huge amount of power. But my feeling is that the people at the Corps are trying to do the right thing.”

As 2017 wound down, the ACOE was working on longer-term contracts, which would eventually go to ECC and Ceres, says agency spokeswoman Nancy Allen. The subsequent suspension of those deals caused great dismay among local officials and burned-out residents, and to a local workforce ready to push through to a completion of the debris cleanup—and onward to the rebuilding of thousands of homes, businesses and civic buildings lost to the fires.

“We should not be pulling in and incentivizing workers from Timbuktu,” says Gore, “and paying them 15 bucks an hour and maybe have them wear the safety equipment or not.” To his mind, the local force of 300–500 hazmat-trained workers is a stimulus hedge against any economic slowdown.

Under FEMA rules, once the dust settles on the cleanup, the state will likely seek to get the $200 million reimbursed from the agency. “The state issued the contract to ECC while we resolve the issue” with AshBritt, says Davis, adding that “state and federal contracts are different when it comes to wages.”

“This is far from over, unfortunately,” says Gore, given AshBritt’s pushback.

Snyder and other local labor leaders were very concerned back in December when it was unclear how worker safety and prevailing-wage issues would play out in the recovery. He’s pleased that the state and ACOE worked together to hash out the stop-gap contract.

“They want to use local workers and local contractors, and they want to do that in good faith,” he says of the ACOE and FEMA. “They’ve got a lot of balls to juggle and we’re just one, but when you put people to work, local people to work in the community, that’s better. They do want to put local workers and local contractors to work,” he says, “but it’s been stressful.”

And mostly because of the wages and benefits.

“This work has been done at these rates in Butte, the Valley fires, in the south right now, in Los Angeles—it’s always been done at those rates and it kind of threw us for a loop when they wanted to cut wages by 25 percent and basically take away the healthcare, the fringe benefits.”

When the state stepped in with the stop-gap contract, Snyder says it was able to implement what’s called the equity-adjustment metric, “to reflect the local labor market.”

The Engineers local was hit hard by the North Bay fires, he adds. More than 30 members of the local lost their homes, even as the union spent $500,000 to train workers in hazardous-materials remediation.

“We did that even before the fires were out” says Snyder. “When they were ready, we were ready.”

In the meantime, the AshBritt dust-up appears to be winding down. Davis reports that AshBritt’s complaint against Ceres has been withdrawn, and the cleanup continues unabated in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties.

How did a robust local labor movement factor into the favorable outcome for the local? “I could not speak to that,” she says. “I would say that this is an emergency response situation. We’re doing everything we can to award contracts and get crews working and get the debris removed,” says Allen. “We’re working with local laborers and local representatives, but we are bound by federal law.”

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