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Portland Diversifying Weatherization Workforce

May 6, 2010 - 4:45pm

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As Recovery Act funds started flowing towards businesses in Oregon last year, stakeholders in Portland wanted to make sure some of the money landed in the hands of women, minorities and other underrepresented groups.

A diverse group in itself, the stakeholders—made up of city officials, labor unions, civil rights organizations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and contractors—signed the agreement as the Clean Energy Works Portland program got underway.  The agreement ensures that those in disadvantaged communities have access to some of the weatherization jobs stemming from the pilot phase, which has almost 500 homes receiving retrofits through the summer with the help of federal dollars.

Launched in June 2009, Clean Energy Works Portland allows residents to upgrade their homes with no upfront costs. Energy Trust of Oregon, the nonprofit that facilitates and oversees weatherization services for the city, coordinates the energy audits and maintains the pool of certified contractors.  Upon completion of the work, the contractors are paid by a financial institution, which has a loan agreement with the resident. The resident then pays back the loan through a charge on their utility bill.

Jeremy Hays, director of special projects for Green For All, a national organization that helped develop the program for Portland, says the community workforce agreement guarantees “communities that have been locked out of previous economic opportunities are locked into the emerging energy efficiency sector.”

“By ensuring that the jobs are high-quality and broadly accessible to low-income communities, we put money in the pockets of workers who support the local economy,” Jeremy says.

One of those people is Berenice Lopez-Dorsey, an Hispanic business owner who started a small business specializing in diagnostic testing to complete weatherization services, Home Energy Life Performance Group, Inc., or H.E.L.P, in 2008 after her general contractor business slowed down due to the economy.

“A lot of people were feeling that if we get lots of money from the federal government, the bigger guys are the only ones who would get everything,” Berenice says. “[The stakeholders] wanted to make sure that everybody was getting work—to keep it fair and simple.”

According to the agreement, 30 percent of the hours worked on the project must be performed by “historically disadvantaged or underrepresented people, including people of color, women, and low‐income residents.”   Additionally, businesses owned by this same group must make up at least 20 percent of all dollars in the project.

They also wanted to make sure the workforce reflected the faces of Portland residents. Under the agreement, 80 percent of the workforce must be hired locally. Workers participating in project retrofits also have to earn the federally-determined prevailing wage, which is about $15 per hour for entry-level positions.

“It’s keeping small businesses in businesses,” says Berenice. “It provides good wages, sustains the jobs we are creating, helps the environment and the homeowners save money. Everybody wins.”

Berenice was able to rehire all nine of the employees she laid off and hire two new workers.  She says her business has tripled because of the Clean Energy Works Portland program. When it first started, Berenice and her crew were weatherizing three homes a month. Now, they work on about 15 homes a month. 

Homeowners participating in the pilot program (which is broken out into four phases) are spending anywhere from $9,000 to $18,000 on energy-efficiency projects. The program should be completed by the end of this summer. 

Vice President Joe Biden announced last month $20 million in Recovery Act funding for Portland and the state of Oregon for a large scale residential and commercial retrofit project. The Clean Energy Works Oregon will be modeled after the Clean Energy Works Portland program.

“I’m hoping [the new program] will work in a good way, like it has been,” Berenice says. “Small contractors like me should continue to be involved. We are the guinea pigs of this program, but I would like to see the city continue to support us.”

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