CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice says he wants a $1.6 billion road bond to stimulate West Virginia’s economy and create thousands of jobs.
As he’s been asked about the jobs during his tour of the state in support of the road projects, Justice has acknowledged he can’t guarantee all the jobs will be filled by West Virginians. But he always says he hopes as many as possible will go to state residents.
“We’re going to try to hire as many West Virginians as we possibly can to do the jobs. Hopefully we’ll end up hiring every job to be a West Virginian. But reality is, that won’t happen,” Justice said this week in Moorefield.
“I’ll tell you this, those contractors that are hiring people that aren’t from West Virginia, we will urge them to hire people who are from West Virginia. And on top of that, we’ll make sure that every dadgum tax dollar is collected. Every tax dollar.”
West Virginia voters go to the polls Saturday to approve or reject the road bond amendment. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. The Secretary of State’s office reported 37,434 voters participated in the early period that ended Wednesday.
One of the big questions on voters minds is the affect on employment for state residents. At a stop in Morgantown, the governor said the question of West Virginians filling the jobs is one of the main topics he’s asked about.
Broadly addressing that topic, he said he’d like for highway construction to be a way to regain some of West Virginia’s lost population. He also said, as he has before, that even non-residents who fill highway construction jobs will benefit the state economically by making local purchases and paying state and local taxes.
“We would all love for every job to go to a West Virginian. There’s not a person here who doesn’t know someone who had to leave West Virginia to get a job. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could reunite families and bring ‘em back home. So there’s a lot of different ways we can pool West Virginians into these jobs,” Justice said.
“Will there be some of these jobs that will be filled with out of state workers? Well, sure there will be, but we gain from that too. If we properly regulate and collect the taxes, payroll taxes or when they go buy Big Gulps or whatever it may be, we collect the taxes from those people too. And not only that, we get our roads fixed. And we get our roads built.”
Of the jobs predicted to result from the road construction projects, it’s important to remember that not all are direct construction jobs. The estimates also predict job growth from secondary spending.
One of the people traveling with the governor also chimed in. Consultant Michael Haid, who has been among those along on the “Roads for Prosperity” tour, said the engineering firms he represents will be glad for the potential work.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about jobs. Everyone wants a guarantee: We have to hire every West Virginian for these jobs. Well, we don’t do that for any other sector anywhere else in West Virginia, and we can’t do it here and make that guarantee,” Haid said during a stop in Hurricane.
“Six hundred jobs will be designed by a West Virginia engineer. I feel really good at that. My engineering firms are chomping at the bit.”
The West Virginia Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation is a supporter of the road bond, but would like greater assurances of employing all West Virginians possible.
“The devil’s in the details,” said Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades. “He’s been able to push forward a major road building plan that we’ve needed for years.”
White would like to minimize the role of hope. He would like more specifics aimed at ensuring West Virginia contractors and construction workers have every opportunity to compete for the possible infrastructure jobs ahead.
“We’ve been trying to push for at least a level playing field so the contractors that use our folks can compete fairly for those jobs,” White said.
“So when people say ‘Will local labor be overwhelmed?’ — we’ll be challenged, if we get the opportunity. I’m worried that we will be faced with unfair, low-wage competition.”
The trades union has been pitching some guidelines that White says are aimed at ensuring more entry points for West Virginia construction workers. But he said response from state officials has been minimal.
“A lot of my members want assurances it will be fair competition, that the law of the land will be enforced. Frankly, the assurances had been less than we’d hoped for. We think a number of things can be put on paper. We have suggested a number of things,” White said.
“Our government has been really overwhelmed. I take it’s from capacity. Someone is going to be overwhelmed in this process. It’s our government. I take him at his word, and I think our governor is a big picture guy. But what specifically, we all want to know, will you do?”
Foremost, White and the union construction workers would like assurances of compliance with the West Virginia Jobs Act.
Companies that win state public improvement construction project bids have to have at least 75 percent of their workers from the local labor market, according to the West Virginia Jobs Act. Companies can have at least two employees from outside the local labor market as long as the 75 percent threshold is met.
“We suggest you require all bidders at the submission of their bid to submit a plan as to how they intend to comply with the West Virginia Jobs Act. That makes it front and center,” White said. “We never hear back on that suggestion.”
Another recommendation is the requirement that contractors certify that they’re up to date on all taxes due.
“Most contractors are paying everything and biding by the laws,” White said. “Cheaters can get the jobs and honest companies can not get the jobs if we don’t stay vigilant.”
And White and the construction union propose the governor require at least 10 percent of all workers on jobs be new workers — either apprentices or trainees.
“Ten percent is a reasonable number to require,” White said. “All you have to do is be drug-free, show up to work and be able. That will create opportunities for local workers who are competing against these imported workers.
“They will want to bring their own workers, and we want them to hire local workers. At least if you had a company coming from afar, the governor could say, ‘Hey at least you need to have 10 percent new workers.’ That combined with the jobs act would mean local workers.”
Specific assurances would also allow Justice to move beyond general statements of a desire for West Virginians to be hired, White said.
“That would be a great way to ensure when he’s asked the question he could say ‘I’m going to make 10 percent new workers; I’m going to enforce the West Virginia Jobs Act.'”
Although Justice has stated he would like to see the road work as a way to put West Virginians back to work, White said he would like to see evidence of a greater concerted effort by the state agencies that deal with employment.
“I think we’ve a little behind the 8-ball here. There should be a coordinated effort between Workforce, highways, to be trying to build up a pipeline of potential workers, making sure there’s a safety class recognized. You just can’t flip a switch for people either.
“I can tell you our apprenticeship programs are doing it themselves, but no one is reaching out to us in government. We’ve reached out to government and there’s not much of a response. Prep work is important. If you’re prepared your project will go smoothly and if you’re not it gets bogged down.”