Federal stimulus funding has allocated more dollars to support the goals of low income weatherization programs and create green jobs. Agencies in the Northwest now have to figure out the most effective way to mobilize those resources to meet those goals.

To learn more about how the dollars are affecting the work of community action agencies in the region I spoke with Chuck Eberdt of the Opportunity Council in Bellingham and Rand Berke of the Community Action Program of Oregon, a community action agency in Salem. Neither Eberdt or Berke come across as pessimists about their programs or the stimulus money. Instead they both talk about these challenges like the professionals that they are; looking under the hood thinking about ways to make it run better.

Both Eberdt and Berke are looking for ways to fix the bottleneck created with the doubling of funds in their budgets and a short time to spend the money. As an article in today’s New York Times agencies are scrambling to ensure funds intended to support more production and more savings for low income families get where they are needed most.

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  • The stimulus dollars have created one of the biggest challenges programs have ever faced. Demand for retrofits for low income families remains as high as ever but there’s a new wrinkle for decades-old weatherization programs to iron out: expectations for green job creation have introduced some new demands to an already full work load.
    The Weatherization Assistance Program is a Department of Energy program that has focused for 32 years on creating permanent energy saving for low income families by making improvements to their homes that save energy—and money. Funds are allocated to the program by Congress to states which in turn allocate to local community action agencies that implement the retrofits themselves or through contractors.

    Additional funding via the economic stimulus plan, while welcome, has created some unexpected challenges, according to Eberdt: “The excitement over these funds has led to a very high expectation on the part of the general public for the number of jobs that will be created.” Eberdt estimates that 300 jobs related to audits, inspections and installers will be created over the next 3 years. 

    But there’s another wrinkle. Who will train the new workers? Some training needs could be met in Washington State by provisions of Senate Bill 5649, legislation that funds training workers to retrofit commercial buildings and homes. Federal weatherization money can only be spent to train workers to do weatherization work. And there isn’t enough time or resources to fully train the number of workers to deal with existing demand for weatherization. Time and money taken to train workers means a slow-down on jobs that are already in the pipeline. 

    Also many sub-contractors are looking for longer term, big dollar projects. Weatherization projects tend to be smaller and short term.

    Perhaps the biggest issue comes from the well-intentioned requirement to include all workers paid with stimulus funds to fall under the requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act.  Davis-Bacon is a depression era law that was intended to ensure that workers on publicly funded projects get paid a wage commensurate with the kind of work they do and where they do it. The law was intended to prevent skilled workers being forced to take lower wages because they have no other choice. Davis-Bacon defines different types of work and sets the wages for that work.

    “One of our biggest challenges is the Davis-Bacon requirements,” says Berke. “The additional wages are an issue but an even bigger problem is all the layers of reporting required by the new requirements.” And construction work and retrofitting work are similar but not the same. To an outsider, both workers might be wearing hard hats and steel toed boots, but the nature of the work is different enough that retrofitting work does not fit into the standard Davis-Bacon compliance requirements. Davis-Bacon’s construction-oriented classifications haven’t caught up with the nature of the work involved in weatherization.

    Now, in spite of early “ramp up” funding from the Feds community action agencies are faced with the challenge of putting the new money in the field with fewer trained workers than they need and many new requirements created by Davis-Bacon.

    The community action programs see their goal as an economic one, creating the opportunity for low income families to avoid a “heat or eat” dilemma in the winter time.  But agencies also see their work as a social justice calling, entirely consistent with the spirit of Davis-Bacon. 

    Berke described the “larger benefit of social justice, creating a greater awareness of the benefits of energy efficiency.”  For most in the field the focus is about being sure that what is happening with higher income households—cleaner energy, retrofits and lower bills—also happens in lower income households. 

    Unfortunately the well-intentioned inclusion of Davis-Bacon requirements seem to pit two economic and social justice policies against one another.

    Next week many weatherization professionals will be convening in Indianapolis to discuss these issues and come up with some workable solutions.

    Update July 28, 2009:An article in today’s Missoulian confirms that Davis-Bacon issues are also affecting spending of stimulus dollars on retrofits in Montana. Nevertheless, like all Community Action agencies Montana’s are pragmatic: “Our goal is to spend (the stimulus money) quickly and then see if other states aren’t spending theirs,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get money from states that aren’t spending their money.”