Elation by the Connecticut building trades over the once-in-a-generation opportunities promised by President Joe Biden in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law is giving way to frustration over the state’s struggle to put that money to work.
The bill Biden signed with great fanfare in November 2021 offers a windfall to the state Department of Transportation — a 40% increase in the federal funding that generally comes in five-year commitments, a jump from $3.8 billion to $5.4 billion.
But Connecticut is one of seven states that have lost construction jobs since passage, a statistic galling to construction unions that have been gearing up for growth in a state with a backlog of highway, bridge and rail work that have meant longer commutes and added costs for keeping a car on roads that get a C-.
“We’re not working,” Joe Toner, the executive director of the State Building Trades Council, told a surprised U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, in a public labor gathering. “We’re seriously not working.”
DeLauro called a meeting in late July with more than a dozen union organizers and labor leaders to talk about how to capitalize on some of the gains unions have made during the labor-friendly Biden administration. Instead, she got a free-for-all airing of grievances about union frustrations in Connecticut.
Labor activists still were smarting from failing to advance their agenda in the 2023 session of the General Assembly. A top priority — an expansion of the state’s paid family and medical leave law — died without a vote in the House, despite passage in the Senate and support from Gov. Ned Lamont.
The Communications Workers of America were still annoyed with Lamont’s chief of staff, Jonathan Dach, and his commissioner of energy and environmental protection, Katie Dykes, for opposing a bill drawn to help Frontier Communications and its union workforce compete for grants financing the expansion of reliable internet service to every community.
The bill set criteria for the state grants, which would be financed with federal funds through American Relief Plan Act and the newer bipartisan infrastructure law, and clarified that the state’s prevailing wage law would apply. Among other things, it would have favored applicants using a directly employed workforce, like Frontier, as opposed to subcontractors.
“The bill as drafted would have limited who would be eligible to bid on federally funded broadband projects in Connecticut to a couple of providers, or potentially only to one, thereby discouraging competition,” said Dykes, whose agency oversees the broadband grants.
Administration officials say they were concerned that changing the law would jeopardize, or at least complicate, what then was the state’s pending application for a competitive federal broadband grant. (Connecticut eventually was awarded $144 million in infrastructure law funds and concluded the prevailing wage standard would apply without clarifying legislation.)
David Weidlich, president of CWA Local 1298, said he was mollified when assured the prevailing wage law would apply to the broadband grants, but the fight left a bitter taste.
“The work and the money coming was meant to do two things: Get fiber to homes, and create jobs in Connecticut,” said Weidlich, one of the attendees at the DeLauro meeting. “And I’m not so sure that people are getting a jobs creation message at all.”
At the meeting, Toner recounted the CWA fight and questioned the ability and commitment of the state to deliver on the Biden administration’s promise to funnel billions through existing formulas and new programs spread across federal agencies, some based on competition, all in the service of “good-paying union jobs and economic growth.”
“That’s not happening. A, DOT can’t get work out the door. B, DOT internally is anti-union,” Toner said. “The new commissioner is a great commissioner. He’s doing a great job. Every time he goes to advertise a job under a project labor agreement, he gets pushed back from his people within the organization.”
Project labor agreements, or PLAs, are collective bargaining agreements for specific projects, and they require union labor.
Lamont and Garrett Eucalitto, the DOT commissioner since the start of Lamont’s second term in January, said in interviews the administration believes in project labor agreements and has a record to show it. The number of PLAs has gone from two to six in just four years.
On federally financed projects, they require feasibility studies to show they will be cost-effective, and the transportation departments in Connecticut and elsewhere admittedly were slow to embrace them, Eucalitto said.
“I don’t think the culture is anti-PLA,” Eucalitto said. “This is not just Connecticut, but the transportation world.”
Dykes noted in an interview that she supported the passage in 2021 of Senate Bill 999, which encouraged project labor agreements and required a prevailing wage and apprentice training on land-based renewable energy projects, such as large-scale community solar generation.
“I’m proud of DEEP’s role in supporting labor,” Dykes said.
Toner’s comments at the talk hosted by DeLauro — where he thanked her and the congressional delegation, then suggested they were being undercut — rippled through labor and political circles. DeLauro was sufficiently concerned to call Lamont’s office to share the complaints and talk about their validity.
“I am not going to get into the personalities. That’s not what I want to look at,” DeLauro said. But she acknowledged asking about the Lamont administration’s commitment to labor and project labor agreements. “I’m a believer in PLAs.”
Toner, who had criticized Dach and Dykes by name, said he regretted the tone of his remarks but stood by his essential complaint: Eighteen months after passage of the infrastructure law, union construction workers have yet to reap significant benefits.
Federal labor statistics, and a state-by-state assessment by a construction industry trade group, show Connecticut’s trades have lost ground — and to some degree not seen nearly anywhere else.
The state had 61,600 construction workers in April 2022, the start of the first outdoor construction season after passage. A year later, the industry was down by 1,900 people — the biggest drop anywhere other than California, which lost 5,100 jobs in a construction industry nearly 15 times larger than Connecticut’s.
“When you are two years into an infrastructure bill, that’s a little difficult to figure. I’m sure that’s not what Joe Biden had in mind,” said Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association.
At least two things are in play. As the Biden administration’s program coordinator warned in the first 100 days after passage, the infrastructure law is geared to long-term strategic investments, not quickie stimulus projects that could contribute to inflation; and the pace of those investments would rely on the states.
“This is not a ‘right-now’ kind of deal,” Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor overseeing the implementation for Biden, told CNN in February. “As soon as the states are ready, they can start. The answer is going to depend on how ready they are to move.”
So, how ready is Connecticut?
It essentially is the question that Keith Brothers, who is Toner’s boss as the elected president of the statewide trades council, asked Lamont last week. The industry is gearing up for growth, with contractors buying equipment and unions seeking apprentices.
“He’s getting a lot of people trained up right now,” Lamont said. “They’re ready to hit the ground probably March or April of next year. He’s looking at the flow of projects, and he wants to make sure that his people are ready to go and get to work, because, you know, we pushed him to make sure he had extra folks on the ground.”
Lamont called the conversation amicable. How Brothers viewed it is unknown. An early and enthusiastic supporter of Lamont’s 2020 reelection campaign, Brothers sought the private meeting last week but did not return repeated requests for comment over several days.
The governor said he well understands impatience in getting launching infrastructure projects.
“Look, we never go as fast as we should go in government. It drives me crazy. But there are a lot of rules and regs,” he said.
Connecticut already won a $158 million Large Bridge Grant, one of the many separate funding mechanisms in the bipartisan infrastructure law, to repair the northbound side of the Gold Star Bridge that carries I-95 over the Thames River. It’s the first phase of a project that will take six years and is covered by a project labor agreement.
“We’re really focused on PLAs for jobs of a certain size, and we’re going to keep to that,” Lamont said. “And you know what? So is President Biden.”
Lamont likens the task of getting infrastructure programs designed, approved, financed and underway to an ever-shifting conga line, where dancers have to keep in touch, moving forward in coordination with others.
“The one weak link in our conga line is us,” Lamont said.
Specifically, professional staff at the DOT. As of July 31, ConnDOT had 454 vacancies, most notably in its engineering bureau, where nearly one in five of the 1,186 authorized positions are vacant. The agency is currently seeking 214 engineers.
One option employed at other times — supplementing the workforce with even more consulting engineers than DOT already uses — is not available, given the tight labor market, Eucalitto said.
“The entire industry is facing it, not just ConnDOT,” Eucalitto said. “Other state DOTs, the engineering consulting firms who support us, also are struggling. And they’re poaching from each other. They’re poaching from us. We’re poaching from them. It’s all just using the same pool of candidates.”
Questions about the ability of the DOT to keep a steady flow of work available for the construction industry are not new. Without steady work, the industry loses workers and the capacity to compete.
DOT had even more vacancies during the administration of Lamont’s predecessor, when money was exceedingly tight and attrition was a tool to curb spending.
The Office of Policy and Management, which oversees the budget, was notorious for withholding approvals to make hires.
Eucalitto, who once worked at OPM, says those days are over, and hiring procedures used by the state’s employment agency, the Department of Administrative Services, were simplified by a law passed at the request of the Lamont administration.
The problem today is one of supply and demand, he said.
Workers born at the peak of the baby boom turned 66 this year. Just to offset retirements, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 25,000 new civil engineers every year for the next decade. Add to that the greater demands imposed by the new spending.
“I’m not an education expert or workforce expert, but it seems like the nation missed the boat on preparing the next generation of engineers to deliver on the infrastructure,” Eucalitto said.
Eucalitto, who grew up in a family with a construction business and has worked in Washington and Hartford on transportation policy and financing, is trying to prepare a DOT with new people in key positions for the next generation of infrastructure projects.
He retained Julie Lorenz, a former state transportation commissioner in Kansas with a national consulting practice focused on “policy development, collaboration and scenario planning,” to assess the agency and help develop a strategic plan. She has been conducting interviews.
“She and I thought it’d be helpful to talk to internal stakeholders and external stakeholders to get a sense of what people inside and outside see is our strengths and weaknesses and what our priorities should be,” Eucalitto said.
The new commissioner, whose executive team had a one-day retreat on Wednesday to talk to Lorenz about her findings, answered carefully when asked if the process was part of an effort to change the agency’s culture.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘reshape culture.’ I think it’s just to reinforce and reposition the agency for the next 10, 15 years of major projects,” Eucalitto said. “We are still short staffed, I think everyone is stressed trying to deliver on the what the public expects with the infrastructure bill. So it’s time to stop, reflect and collect our thoughts. What do we want to achieve the next 5, 10, 15 years? And how do we get there?”
Eucalitto asks for a little more patience.