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Don’t Make It Harder for Minority-Owned Businesses in the Construction Industry

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Street redesign project in Brooklyn (photo:Ed Reed/Mayor's Office Flickr)

After decades of work overcoming discrimination in the construction industry, minority- and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs) know that it is still very difficult for them to get a fair shake of opportunities. There is plenty of progress left to be made for black and brown contractors in a field historically dominated by white males. But the City Council is moving ahead with legislation that would turn back the clock on New York’s construction industry and send us back to a time when M/WBEs had virtually no shot at winning contracts. The bill, known as Intro. 1447, pushes a false argument about safety while creating impediments and threatening to undermine hardworking black and brown contractors across our city.

As someone who has spent most of his career working with small, emerging M/WBE contractors to help them access new opportunities, I am shocked and disappointed that our City Council members are not even addressing this issue. They need to hold off on Intro. 1447 and rewrite the bill to ensure it does not have an adverse effect on M/WBEs.

My experience in this field comes from developing programs that bring locally based, minority-owned contractors on to major construction projects – and many of these projects are hoping to meet or exceed specific M/WBE contracting goals. It is clear that the vast majority of M/WBE contractors find it so difficult to enter the industry because they are much smaller than their competitors and do not have the financial resources to cover the required up-front insurance and bonding costs.

One of the main strategies we have employed to help small businesses is to match them with larger contractors so they can at least do a portion of the work. For example, if an M/WBE does not have the financial resources to cover the costs of working on a 20-story residential tower, we can help them get a contract to do work for several floors of the project.

I have seen firsthand that when we afford M/WBE contractors opportunities, they have a very high rate of success and growth. These small business owners take safety and quality seriously, and they show us that they deserve a fair and level playing field.

However, Intro. 1447 would permanently damage M/WBE participation in the construction industry by fundamentally and unfairly changing the rules of the game. The bill would raise the barrier to entry with an arbitrary 59-hour training requirement – nearly six times the current standard – even though much of that proposed training would have nothing to do with safety.

Given what we already know, the results of passing a bill like this are easy to predict. Costs will skyrocket and small M/WBE contractors will no longer be able to afford to work on small parts of a project, let alone the whole thing. When they run out of work opportunities, these M/WBE contractors might just go out of business. Once again, virtually every single construction project in New York City will be overseen entirely by white men.

It does not have to be like this. If the City Council is willing to address the mistakes in this bill and do the right thing, there is no reason why they cannot put together legislation that increases safety while also protecting black and brown business owners. That must happen now.

Rohan DeFreitas is president of Crescent Consulting, a firm that connects M/WBEs with contracting opportunities in the construction industry.

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