Council passes Mayor Landrieu’s HireNOLA initiative, though questions abound _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Activists picket outside New Orleans City Hall before the council took up a local hiring proposal Thursday, October 1, 2015.

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday unanimously backed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s push to get more local and disadvantaged workers hired on city projects, though questions remain about how the mayor’s policy will play out in practice.

The program, dubbed Hire NOLA, is part of the city’s Economic Opportunity Strategy, launched last year in response to an unemployment rate among the city’s working-age African-American men that one recent study pegged at 52 percent.

Under the policy, businesses with applicable city contracts must first turn to the city’s Office of Workforce Development to find new hires. They must make “good-faith efforts” to award hours to local and disadvantaged workers, with the ultimate goal of having half of all hours go to local workers, and 30 percent of all hours go to disadvantaged workers.

Applicable contracts are those in excess of $150,000 that involve construction, alteration or demolition of public buildings or public works. Also included are cooperative endeavor agreements between the city and parties receiving tax incentives for economic development projects valued at more than $150,000.

Disadvantaged local workers are defined as Orleans Parish residents with incomes equal to or less than 50 percent of the New Orleans area median income, or those who face other employment obstacles, such as homelessness or prior arrests or convictions.

The plan is billed as a partial solution to a host of city problems, most notably violent crime. Supporters hope the new requirements for city contractors will ultimately help more local workers reach the middle class instead of turning to criminal activity.

“Since launching the Economic Opportunity Strategy, we have made our goal clear: Prepare and connect the people of New Orleans to jobs and connect our local businesses to strategic opportunities for growth,” Landrieu said in a prepared statement. “I commend our partners in the City Council for making this a priority.”

His senior adviser for economic opportunity, Ashleigh Gardere, outlined the administration’s aims in a presentation to the council Thursday.

“Wealth disparity really is spreading in New Orleans faster than any other city around the country,” Gardere said. “The city contracts absolutely are an opportunity to close this gap.”

At present, local residents get only 21 percent of the total work hours on city contracts, she said.

Critics of the plan acknowledged that locals need to be getting more of the work, but they questioned whether Landrieu’s plan would be effective and whether it would have unintended consequences.

Ken Naquin, of the Louisiana Associated General Contractors, said some of his members worry the requirements will force them to fire existing employees who live in other parishes — or worse, former longtime New Orleanians who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina.

“When you are ready to spend the money, you are going to say that we are going to keep some of this, just for the New Orleans residents,” he said. “That’s disingenuous.”

Councilwoman Stacy Head rattled off a list of concerns about the plan’s particulars. Noting that the new rules apply only to businesses that employ Louisiana residents, she said “Mr. Richie Rich in Texas” would have an unfair advantage.

She also said small, cash-strapped nonprofits that receive city contracts might be unable to keep up with the new requirements. And she said that while the city spoke with numerous stakeholders before announcing its plan, not everyone’s concerns were addressed.

Gardere countered that of 12 recommendations that the city received from contractors, 11 were included in the final policy. The single point of disagreement, she said, is over the fact that contractors wanted the policy to spell out how many local and disadvantaged workers should be hired — not, as written now, the percentage of work hours those employees should get.

Gardere insisted that the policy would not force businesses to fire employees and noted that the specifics of what constitutes a “good faith effort” still have to be worked out.

Councilman James Gray, who introduced the measure on behalf of Landrieu’s administration, said the writing of specific rules might assuage some of the concerns raised by Head and others.

Presumably, such rule-writing needs to happen before January, which is when Landrieu wants to begin implementing the new policy.

Finalized or no, the move delighted dozens of activists who arrived to clamor for the ordinance’s passage, bearing bold-lettered #BlackWorkersMatter signs and shouting on City Hall’s steps before the council vote.

“Bringing in the FBI will not solve the crime in New Orleans. Hiring more workers will solve the crime in New Orleans,” protester Divonite Almestica said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.