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Builders trade group challenges St. Pete ordinance on construction contract mandates

Margie Manning

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Photo by Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa on Unsplash

A construction industry trade association says it is illegal for St. Petersburg to require contractors to hire apprentices and disadvantaged workers in order to work on big city projects.

The Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors filed suit against the city Nov. 5, saying the worker mandates for construction contracts worth $1 million or more violate state law, discriminate against certain workers and raise project costs.

A request for comment on the lawsuit from the city was pending return.

In adopting the city ordinances that are now being challenged by the trade group, the city said there’s a shortage of craft labor skills and the measures would give more people the skills they need for jobs.

Competitive disadvantage

Associated Builders & Contractors said it advances the merit shop construction philosophy, which encourages open competition and a free enterprise approach that awards contracts based solely on merit, regardless of labor affiliation. The local chapter said it represents the interests of about 400 commercial, industrial and institutional merit shop contractors, suppliers and industry professionals.

The trade group is challenging ordinances initially approved by the St. Petersburg City Council in 2015 and amended in August 2019.

One ordinance said at least 15 percent of all hours of the work performed on major construction projects shall be performed by apprentices employed by prime contractors or subcontractors.

“Requiring the employment of apprentices will promote the advancement of skill sets in construction trades to improve the quality and quantity of work,” the 2019 ordinance said. “The city is committed to this investment in the region’s workforce which it believes will result in construction efficiencies and sustainable construction career paths.”

Another ordinance imposed the same requirement for disadvantaged workers, including residents of south St. Petersburg, veterans, people who haven’t finished high school, people with a criminal record and people who have recently received unemployment compensation or other public assistance.

“Requiring the employment of disadvantaged workers on major construction projects will promote economic security for persons working in the City and their families, decreasing the number of citizens in St. Petersburg who rely on public assistance,” the 2019 ordinance said.

The trade group said its members who cannot meet the city’s requirements are at a competitive disadvantage when bidding on public work projects in the city.

“If ABC Gulf members were to bid on such projects they would have to factor into their bids additional costs to account for the increased risks,” the lawsuit said.

The apprenticeship ordinance resulted in the delay of a resurfacing construction project because the contractor wasn’t able to meet the requirements, the lawsuit said. The project was not identified in the lawsuit, but Florida Politics reported in May that a $4 million contract with Ajax Paving was delayed for about three months.

Request for injunction

The five-county lawsuit asks a Pinellas County judge to grant a permanent injunction against the city ordinances. Among the reasons it cites are:

It says the ordinances are in violation of Florida public bidding laws, which do not require contractors to employ either apprentices or disadvantaged workers as a condition of being awarded contracts for public works projects. It also says the ordinances require contractors to pay more than the state or federal minimum wage, in violation of state laws.

Additionally, contractors that want to bid on city contracts may be forced to fire current employees who are not apprentices or disadvantaged workers, and that infringes on their fundamental right to earn a living, violating the equal protection clause of state laws.

The lawsuit was filed about 10 months after a law firm representing ABC Gulf wrote a letter to the City Council asking apprentice ordinance be repealed. The city never replied to that letter, the lawsuit says.

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