San Jose council approves more workforce protections, new billboards

San Jose lawmakers are cracking down on enforcing stricter workforce protections for construction workers almost two years after the shocking discovery of an unlicensed contractor harboring undocumented immigrants in slave-like conditions at the former Silvery Towers site.

On Tuesday, the City Council passed a law that requires contractors to pay workers a prevailing wage while demonstrating a “good faith” effort to hire locally from a pool of “underrepresented” workers and set standards for apprenticeships, in effect replacing the previous ordinance passed in June.

The ordinance requires that local workers must put in 30 percent of the work on a city-subsidized development and that contractors must demonstrate an effort to hire “underrepresented” workers, defined by the city as a vulnerable individual who may be on the brink of homelessness, receives government assistance or is formerly incarcerated, as some examples.

“People can’t afford to live here anymore and we need to ensure that there are standards around pay and work to create some opportunities for folks that need it. This is an opportunity for us to get there,” said councilmember Maya Esparza.

But a few council members were not on board.

Councilmembers Johnny Khamis and Dev Davis voted against the ordinance, raising concerns that the downtown high-rise incentive program, a program included in the workforce standards ordinance that will be reviewed later this fall, gives companies a tax break in an effort to boost development.

Khamis said that those tax breaks and fee reductions should not be labeled as a subsidy.

Davis said she could not support the ordinance in light of the housing crisis, citing that the city has a “vested interest” in building as much housing as possible. Business leaders have also expressed concern that too many fees will cause developers to invest in other areas away from San Jose.

“I want every workers to be paid fairly for every hour they work,” said Davis. “But I’m concerned that a reduction to zero is still a reduction.”

City attorney Rick Doyle said that reducing a fee is not the same as a subsidy.

“If you eliminate the tax generally or you eliminate the fee then you’re not subsidizing– you’re eliminating,” he added.

Still, some councilmembers argued that the debate behind the fees misses the point. Councilmember Raul Peralez said that the fees are important for investing in affordable housing and public amenities such as parks, and maintaining roads. Councilmember Sylvia Arenas added that the conversation around fees avoids what the ordinance is aiming to do — provide protections for workers.

“This investment is in our workforce and we can’t have it both ways,” said Arenas.

Electronic billboards in San Jose

After a four year long process, the City Council unanimously voted on Tuesday to move forward with a proposal to find advertisers for two new billboards in the city’s downtown core.

The city is investing in the new billboards in order to enhance the commercial vibrancy of downtown, reduce visual clutter and blight and generate revenue for the city. Many of the councilmembers expressed that the new, digitized billboards pose an opportunity to rid the city of some of its existing old, blighted paper billboards.

Seventeen sites have been environmentally-cleared for the new billboards.

“I look forward to this moving forward and the next phase as well,” said Peralez.

The city’s process to start soliciting proposals from companies begins later this month. City officials said they hope to see the billboards up as early as next spring. 

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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