FRESNO -- The prospect of construction jobs in the recession-weary San Joaquin Valley long has been a selling point for proponents of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
A controversy has arisen, however, since officials pledged in December to reserve a portion of those jobs for certain disadvantaged people.
In addition to veterans, former foster children and single parents, the classification includes high school dropouts, the homeless and people who have been convicted of a crime.
"There's another chapter in the high-speed fail saga, and I almost can't do this one with a straight face," Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said in a recent installment of "Are you kidding me?" a video series in which Jones vents political frustrations. "What a social engineering disaster this is going to be, and add to California's laughing-stock reputation."
A desire to help people facing barriers to employment has been a fixture of government thinking since the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority's hiring policy is similar to guidelines adopted by several other agencies, including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority last year.
The rail policy, contained in a request for proposals issued to contractors, calls for at least 30 percent of project labor to be done by people who live in low-income areas, with at least 10 percent of that work going to disadvantaged workers.
In union halls and unemployment offices, the project is followed more closely in the San Joaquin Valley than perhaps anywhere else in the state. The Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board is fielding so many calls from people looking for jobs on the project that it is preparing a rail-specific website to help screen applicants once construction starts.
"The question is, the task that we have, which I hope does not become a Herculean task, is that we have to be sure that the people we are going to refer over are competitive," said the Fresno work board's executive director, Blake Konczal. "The contractors don't have to hire anybody if they're not qualified, so our job is to make sure that the local people that we refer over are screened, that they receive adequate training, and that they're ready to go."
Konczal said he lobbied rail officials for a disadvantaged worker program for two years before its approval.
"The notion that this buffet of employment could go through this community, and we've got unemployed people who are starving ...," he said, "I knew we'd get it right because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, for the workers."
Another criticism has nothing to do with the policy, but with its inclusion in a broader agreement that even rail officials acknowledge is a form of Project Labor Agreement negotiated with labor organizers.
Under the broader Community Benefits Agreement, nonunion subcontractors could work on the project, but only if they agree to wage and working conditions typically afforded union workers.
Kevin Dayton, a former lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., which represents nonunion contractors, said the Community Benefits Agreement is exclusionary and the authority promoted its "disadvantaged worker" program only to divert attention from it.
"I believe that that particular policy was simply a front for what they really wanted to do, which was to require all of the contractors working on it to sign a Project Labor Agreement," said Dayton, now an independent consultant.
Rail officials are reviewing proposals from five consortiums seeking to build the first section of the rail line, a 30-mile stretch from Madera to Fresno costing as much as $1.8 billion.
Jeff Morales, the authority's chief executive officer, said the Community Benefits Agreement will expand access to nonunion subcontractors, not limit it. The large firms bidding to lead construction have existing contracts of their own with unions, Morales said, and the Community Benefits Agreement is necessary to ensure that nonunion subcontractors could be hired.
But Nicole Goehring, government affairs director of the Associated Builders and Contractors' Northern California chapter, said many nonunion contractors won't bid under the restrictive conditions of the agreement.
"For your qualified, skilled workers who might be able to bid it but don't happen to be in the union," she said, "they now have to, their employers have to sign on to these union work force rules in order to be able to have an opportunity to work on the job."
The rail authority's hiring policy is one of several policies designed to keep project money in California. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed legislation last year requiring the rail authority to "make every effort" to buy trains and related equipment from manufacturers in California.
Such policies, Morales said, could lure engineering and manufacturing firms to California, creating "a rail industry similar to the way aerospace was such an important driver of the state's economy in the '50s and '60s."
The rail line is proposed to begin in June or July in the San Joaquin Valley and then expand, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco within 15 years. Modesto would be part of a later Sacramento branch.
The authority still must acquire land for the project, and long-term financing remains uncertain.
At the job center in Fresno on a recent day, dozens of unemployed people completed job applications, practiced interviewing and searched for work.
Lon Martinez, who has been unemployed for six years, said he had worked as a construction inspector and tested hazardous materials for an engineering firm before being laid off six years ago.
A felony conviction for a burglary he said he committed while living in a park likely qualifies Martinez as a disadvantaged worker, and he said he will apply for a job on the rail project.
The government is spending money on him by providing him food stamps, Martinez said, and he would rather work.
"I was a good worker," he said. "I just hit hard times when the economy changed. That's all."