By Donald C. Fry
Frustration on the part of well-intentioned Baltimore City Council members seeking to promote local hiring by businesses performing city contracts boiled over recently when Council President Jack Young reportedly chastised the city’s Law Department for not cooperating with council efforts.
Young and other council members want to pass a bill mandating that 51 percent of new hires working for private-sector contractors on city projects be city residents. In fact, the bill is poised for final consideration as soon as June 3 at the next council meeting.
However, the city Law Department advised the council in January that a hiring preference bill based on where a job applicant lives is inherently unconstitutional. Council President Young then asked the Law Department to “tweak” the legislation so that it would pass constitutional muster.
In effect, City Council members were asking for “magic bullet” legislative language.
No such “magic bullet” exists for any legislation that creates a hiring preference based on residency, City Solicitor George Nilson replied to the council in a May 2nd memo. This is because the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically rejected this approach. Although other cities, such as San Francisco and Boston have passed such laws that so far have gone unchallenged, “there is no reported case” where such a law has survived judicial review when challenged, Nilson reported.
City Council members clearly remain frustrated that there are obstacles to passing what, in their minds, should be a simple initiative to directly address the city’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate – highest in the state.
It is reasonable to expect that projects that receive city taxpayer funding provide an opportunity to encourage the hiring of city residents. However, any such program must pass constitutional muster.
Aside from the issue of constitutionality, the legislation has other obstacles, not the least of which involves its inclusion of criminal penalties, under certain circumstances, for non-complying employers. It also includes monthly reporting requirements to city employment development administrators that are burdensome, both for employers and for the administrators.
Nevertheless, the frustration of Young and council members is understandable. But there appears to be plenty of room to step back, take a deep breath and develop a “win-win” approach to the issue of local hiring, especially if council members are willing to build upon the substantial work by the Mayor’s Office, employers, nonprofits, and labor organizations that is already underway.
For instance, the city currently has six major initiatives to promote local hiring. The most prominent one – “Employ Baltimore” created by a mayoral executive order – requires most businesses with city contracts exceeding $50,000 to work with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development to hire city residents for jobs created by the contract.
The initiative is collaborative rather than punitive, and connects employers to a menu of city employment services and to the city’s career delivery system that identifies qualified city residents.
Since the “Employ Baltimore” initiative was launched, 38 percent of employees hired by employers to work on city contracts have been city residents. That’s three-quarters of the way to the 51 percent goal the City Council is seeking.
The city also involves employers, nonprofits and labor organizations in initiatives to better identify and hire highly qualified city residents, deliver hiring support services to employers, operate “community job hubs” to strengthen residents’ job skills and to offer no-cost training classes, and to connect city youth with private-sector summer jobs.
Meanwhile, though City Solicitor Nilson was unable to deliver the legislative “magic bullet” council members wanted for their currently proposed legislation, Nilson did offer several specific suggestions for ways to structure local hiring legislation so that it would survive constitutional challenge.
Suggestions included focusing the hiring preference on income level rather than residency, focusing on those unemployed or who have completed job training programs, conforming low-income hiring preferences to already established models for projects where use of federal funds are involved, and amending the city charter’s requirements for procurement to reflect these constitutional methods to promote local hiring.
A constructive, well thought-out approach by city council members, working with the Mayor’s Office, the Law Department and business leaders is far preferable to ramming a seriously-flawed piece of legislation through the City Council. Although it may seem on its face to be well-intended, the process has not been transparent and the premise of passing an unconstitutional ordinance, irrespective of legal advice from the city’s top legal officer, is inconsistent with good legislative policy and with the oath taken by elected officials to uphold the constitution.
Virtually everyone in the public and private sector understands that the city’s high unemployment rate relates to a multitude of issues including, education, training, soft-skills and job readiness, poverty, health and mobility, to name just a few factors.
These types of complex issues are rarely resolved by arbitrary, punitive mandates. The City Council could play a more significant role in the solution if it pursued a constructive, inclusive approach with city government agencies, the private sector, education institutions and labor leaders to achieve the intended goal.
Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.
Recent Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry: