Is it too hard to get a D.C. Water construction job?

Is D.C. Water falling down on its commitment to get District residents into the hundreds of construction jobs generated by several major infrastructure projects now underway?

That’s what the activist group D.C. Jobs or Else claims, and they made the above YouTube video showing Ward 8 residents Robert Knight and Reginald Shepherd trying to apply for jobs through a D.C. Water “job opportunity center.” They are told they can’t directly visit the center, located in a trailer at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant, to apply for jobs, but a receptionist offers to e-mail them a list of jobs they can apply for through various construction companies.

Asked to comment on the video, D.C. Water spokesman John Lisle said it omits key facts. The trailer, he said, is used to conduct scheduled interviews with applicants, who can receive a list of opportunities via the web, e-mail or telephone. “For security reasons the facility is not accessible on a walk-in basis to job seekers without an appointment,” he said.

Lisle said the utility’s figures show 181 job-seekers have submitted applications to the center, with 56 interviewed and 24 hired. Thirteen of those were District residents. No one by the name Robert Knight or Reginald Shepherd have applied for jobs, he said.

The Rev. George Gilbert Jr., the leader of D.C. Jobs or Else, maintains the jobs trailer is an “empty PR stunt.”

“The ‘Job Opportunity Trailer’ sits outside, so naturally you would think that the purpose of it was to be accessible to the public,” he said. “Why else would you locate it outside of secure buildings? But it’s behind two police checkpoints and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs, and now D.C. Water tells us that the public is not actually allowed to just walk into the [trailer]. … What’s the trailer for, then? To house the telephone?”

Lisle said the utility is working to open a second opportunity center away from Blue Plains and emphasized that it’s D.C. Water’s contractors who are hiring through the trailer, not D.C. Water itself. But Gilbert calls that a distinction without a difference. “As the project owner, D.C. Water has complete control over the project,” he said. “They could ask the contractors to hire a certain percentage of D.C. residents and the contractors would have to do it.”

Gilbert says he’ll keep pressing for an enforceable community benefits agreement with the utility, one with “real targets and consequences for not reaching them” — something that’s been the focus of activism by Gilbert, as well as the Washington Interfaith Network and other worker advocacy groups, and is the subject of a D.C. Council bill introduced last month.

“Simply opening a second trailer is not enough,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · July 17, 2013