Are Blacks getting jobs on the Schubert Theater project?

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Photo by James L. Stroud
The Schubert Theater

Photo by James L. Stroud

Photo by Charles Hallman

When the $18 million Shubert Theater renovation project began in late 2009, City officials predicted it would create over 100 construction-related jobs. After hearing concerns from some MSR readers that not enough of these jobs were going to workers of color, including African Americans, we asked the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department what they could tell us about the project’s workforce and how such projects are monitored. We were referred to Contract Compliance Manager Johnnie Burns.

According to Burns, “Overall, there have been about 54,000 hours on this project,” referring to the Schubert project’s workforce by total work hours logged. To date, these hours have been broken down to show that 8,700-plus total workforce hours, about 16 percent of the total, are by workers of color: 3.3 percent Black, 8.3 percent Latino, 2.5 percent Asian, 1.6 percent Native American. Around five percent are female. “Those numbers are good,” says Burns, who expects participation by Blacks and other workers of color to increase by the time the project concludes in June.

An estimated 44 projects, including the Shubert and the $50 million Cedar-Riverside Towers rehabilitation, totaling around $129 million are currently being monitored by the department, says Burns, who has been in his position since 2008. Four members of the seven-person contract compliance unit, including Burns, are Black, he says.

“My staff has to go through all of those line items and say where there’s a discrepancy [and ask] why aren’t these goals being met. We do it on a monthly basis.”
Among the recommendations in a disparity report released by the City last October was the need for improvement in how the City manages contract compliance on projects funded wholly or in part by the City. The report was critical of the City’s past laxity in monitoring how contractors honored their agreements to hire workers of color and subcontract with minority businesses.

“The report shows that our office was not doing anything between this time and that time [2003-2007], but the truth is that we already made some of those changes,” says Burns regarding the recommendations. “A lot of changes already had been made when I got here [in 2008].

“We started developing internal processes where everybody is doing the same stuff, more stringent enforcement and compliance mechanisms, and started reporting quarterly to the city council. We changed a lot of stuff before the report came out.”
Burns also points out, “There has been 100 percent improvement in minority numbers in two and a half years,” from 4.3 minority participation in 2007 to 9.3 in 2010. “All that has to do with monitoring and enforcement [has improved],” says Burns.

Part of his department’s monitoring process includes a pre-construction analysis, which “gathers information about who are they going to utilize,” says Burns. “Once the project is awarded to [a general contractor]…we follow up accordingly during the life of the job. We’re looking at how much minority and female hours they are going to commit.”

His staff tracks a project monthly using an electronic database in which the contractor submits payroll information. “We take directly from the wage report the employment information, so we know exactly how much employment is happening on these jobs,” Burns notes.

The monitoring process also includes unannounced site visits, says Burns. “Payroll and non-discrimination is what we look for on City [projects],” he notes. “The red flags come when [workers] say, ‘I don’t actually know what I am making’ or ‘I guess I am a laborer.’

“We also spend a lot of time focusing on treatment: ‘Are you being treated fair?’ We try to keep those interviews to three to five minutes.”

Burns says that a punitive action against a contractor or subcontractor who isn’t in compliance includes a “two-stick approach. First of all, we talk to people and try to get them to comply. If they can provide [reasons] why they are behind in their numbers, and we can verify that, typically nothing happens. If they don’t provide it, the first stick is withholding payment until we can get some verification.”

The “second stick” occurs if a contractor is “stretching us on. Then the ordinance allows us to penalize them $500 a day for not being in compliance,” Burns says.
Asked why the actual numbers of persons of color working on a project aren’t recorded as opposed to the current method of tracking only work hours, Burns explains, “Can I say that there were five actual Latinos or 20 Blacks [on a particular work site]? I can’t do that.”

While there is no law preventing reports on actual workers of color observed on site, Burns says that at present that is not done at any level — local, state or national. Doing so would require the creation of reporting methods that do not presently exist. Burns says he supports creating such methods, but that would require funding that is not currently available.

A “good faith effort” is what Burns looks for, he says, adding that “I believe a good faith effort has taken place on the Shubert project” by McGough Construction of Roseville, the general contractor for the renovation project.

“We can’t make [a contractor] lay off somebody to hire a minority or female. But what we can do is say, ‘If you start the job with six people, and you end the job with 10 people, of the four new people you brought on, do you have any women or minorities? And if you didn’t, why didn’t you?’ We hold them to what they told us they could get.

“If you can’t step up to the table and show that you are nondiscriminatory and that you can pay people, then you shouldn’t have a job with the City of Minneapolis,” says Burns. “This city is too diverse to have contracts where people don’t want to do the right thing on these jobs.”

He says he expects the Shubert project to be completed this June. “Overall, I think we are doing fairly well on all of our projects.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to