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Disparity in hiring recasts meaning of ‘invisible man’

Richard Bonds was “flabbergasted” by the front-page story about a shortage of construction workers amid the building boom that is remaking Buffalo.

So were his four out-of-work colleagues sitting around the table at BUILD of Buffalo on the East Side.

All claim multiple certifications to do work ranging from lead abatement or painting to holding the traffic-control flag at construction sites. (Yes, there’s a certification for that).

Yet they can’t find work as projects – from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to the SolarCity site – go up around them and workers are imported from other cities.

Lawrence Satcher, a Laborers Local 210 journeyman trained in asbestos and lead abatement, estimates he worked 150 to 200 hours – that’s hours, not days – last year and had to pick up “odd jobs here and there” to make ends meet.

Bonds, also with Local 210, said he hasn’t worked since February and has “a 71-year-old mother in Tennessee I have to call and get money from.”

Monique Bates used to hear these same stories when she got into the field 20 years ago. “That’s what kept me from pursuing the union thing,” said Bates, who recently got her certification in home inspection, lead paint and renovation, remodeling and painting. But the certificate hasn’t done much good. “I need some work,” she said.

This is the Buffalo that Katie Couric didn’t see Tuesday when she brought her Yahoo News crew to film the city’s revival. These are the folks who are missing when BUILD leaders – like other groups before them – visit job sites and find contractors repeatedly failing the “eye test” despite claims of meeting minority hiring goals. The disparity between what’s on paper and who’s on the site gives a whole new meaning to “invisible man.”

Welder Carlton Bennefield began his own company because it was “the only way I could really make some money.”

For those in the union, the $33 monthly dues without getting called to work adds insult to the financial injury.

“If you’re not working, how are you able to pay that money?” asked Local 210 journeyman Troy Evans.

They all have stories of the games played when they go to unions and contractors, from being told to contact someone who’s always “out in the field,” to hearing after the fact about emergency certification classes to fill jobs for which they already are certified.

Their recommendations: Hire the qualified local workers before bringing in workers from out of town, and stop playing favorites by “holding” forthcoming jobs for workers already earning a paycheck on another site.

BUILD passed their names to Paul Brown, Building & Construction Trades Council president, who said Bates and Bennefield were not in unions while the Local 210 members ranked low in hours worked – a Catch-22 that means they may never get called. He also disputed the notion of widespread labor shortages, saying that some locals have members out of work and that the unions “are doing as much as we can to put as many minorities to work as possible.”

Not everyone is convinced. BUILD led last fall’s protest at SolarCity and plans more demonstrations if necessary.

But here’s a better idea: Find out where the next celebrity journalist will be when he or she comes to town to bestow the national praise that Buffalo leaders covet. Stage the protest there.

Then maybe something will change.