Credit: Anna Halkidis
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--The main attraction at a recent national tradeswomen's gathering here was Patricia Shiu, a labor department official in a position to help if more women would just tell her office what's going on.
"We have their backs," Shiu said of affected women. "But we need to hear their voices."
Some at the meeting took the cue and spoke up.
Leah Rambo is director of training at the Nicholas Maldarelli Training Center, in Queens, N.Y., which educates sheet metal workers. She told the crowd that contractors have specifically asked her not to send female workers to their site.
Shiu, as director of federal contract compliance for the U.S. Department of Labor, which legally enforces equal employment opportunities for women, said her office is ready to hear from female workers who feel they have suffered discrimination.
Before President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009, Shiu, a lawyer, spent 26 years working on employment discrimination cases for the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco.
She came to the gathering of tradeswomen and their advocates, held here in late March, ready to show she understood the common problems that women on construction sites say they face: unwanted attention, being monitored more than male counterparts, receiving menial tasks.
"Women suffer all types of repercussions, harassment and discrimination," Shiu said.
And then there's the problem of women getting few of the jobs under federal contract.
Shiu is adamant about doing something about that. Her goal is to increase the current 2.6 percent of women in trade jobs performed under the federal contracting process to 6.9 percent; a figure promised by the Labor Department in 1980, but never accomplished.
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Skilled trade jobs do not require a college degree and they often pay more than occupations with comparable educational qualifications. For example, a carpenter in New York City can make around $46 an hour plus benefits, according to the government's statistics.
"Not everyone can go to a four-year college," Shiu told the gathering. Trade occupations could greatly benefit women who didn't get the opportunity for higher education, she added.
To boost women's numbers, Shiu--who oversees a staff of about 800--said enforcement is key.
In 2008, a year before she took over, the compliance office recorded 204 construction reviews. Since then, the annual number has doubled and the annual number of violations has tripled. The majority of these violations were given because construction sites failed to meet guidelines on affirmative action, Shiu said.
Shiu hopes to change that by improving the system for recruiting women. Her office is now working closely with the federal organizations involved in construction contracting--such as the Department of Transportation and the General Services Administration--to learn about projects early enough to play a role in hiring.
With earlier identification of these projects --such as bridges-- her office can inform workers about available positions and lessen dependence on general contractors, many of which have a proven record of not hiring a lot of women.
"We need to know when these construction projects have begun," Shiu said. "We need to know before people have been hired."
This will also help correct hiring violations and make it easier to fight discrimination in the construction industry, Shiu said.
Fighting discrimination is difficult when projects are short in duration. Often, Shiu told the gathering, companies and applicants have already moved on before an investigation can begin.
Along with her team, Shiu encourages those affected to file complaints against a contractor quickly so the investigation can be performed in a timely manner.
Apprentice programs run by state and local governments can also give women a boost in construction. These two- to four-year programs send trainees to job sites in a process that does not give contractors control over who's selected.
New York City's apprenticeship programs have seen an increase of female attendance.
"There were two women in my class," recalled Rambo during the panel discussion. That was in 1988.
Now, as the first woman to be appointed a full-time instructor at an apprenticeship school, Rambo said 27 women are in her program.
Wendy Webb, the Local 79 apprenticeship co-coordinator at the Mason Tenders Training Fund, shared a similar experience. In 1997 there was only one woman in training, she said. Now 68 women are among the 500 apprentices.
Both Rambo and Webb welcomed Shiu's attention to female workers.
"You can't stress enough how much of a difference enforcement would make," said Rambo. "It will help us go in the direction we need."
Colleen O'Leary, who earned her degree from the Nontraditional Employment for Women school this past summer, here in New York City, was in the crowd. The 35-year-old, now trained to install heat and frost insulators, is currently waiting for admission into the union, which she feels will advance her chances of finding work as a tradeswoman.
"It's great to see the different organizations that are here and all the people working on this," O'Leary said.
Anna Halkidis is a multimedia journalist who received her master's degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2012. She's also the founder and editor of a music blog.
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