WERC, the Women’s Equity in Rebuilding Coalition, is an alliance of national and local organizations, tradeswomen, and allies. We have come together to give voice to issues of economic equity for women in the Gulf region. We seek to advance the goal that women in the Gulf region be involved in the rebuilding of homes, businesses and communities that were destroyed by hurricanes at wages sufficient to support their families. Otherwise they become victims yet again, as they include some of the nation’s poorest families.
Social infrastructure is more basic than physical infrastructure to the vitality and success of a community. Unfortunately, the talk of rebuilding a better gulf coast seldom acknowledges the unmet needs of women for higher wages, childcare and greater social support for their work in caring for dependents. Yet no community will thrive if women do not.
Women also have a role to play in rebuilding the physical infrastructure. Housing, schools and businesses are still in disrepair. But calls for workers to return and help rebuild the communities at times appear to exclude women.
We, as a country, can do better. We can use this tragedy to create new and better approaches to rebuilding communities while helping women and their families move from the poverty that surrounds them onto paths that lead to long-term economic security. One such path is that of ensuring that women are recruited, trained, hired and promoted during this period of repairing and rebuilding the streets, homes, buildings, sewers, plumbing and electrical systems that have been destroyed. Over the past thirty years, women, particularly those without college degrees, have found that one of the most reliable strategies to support themselves and their families is to apprentice and work in the trades or in warehousing, transportation, and information technology. In fact, women in these positions earn on average twice as much as women who are clustered in clerical and service jobs, and are also more likely to receive benefits that include health care and retirement security.
We applaud the elected officials who worked so hard to get prevailing wages reinstated. Now we need to put affirmative action policies in place as well.
WERC calls on leaders in the Gulf States and nationally to make a commitment to include women and people of color in the rebuilding. Job training and pre-apprenticeship programs that prepare women to successfully compete for jobs in the trades are in place throughout the country. Efforts in the Gulf Coast can benefit from the strategies of these successful programs. These groups can offer technical assistance and models to public agencies, unions, contractors, and other employers in finding the best strategies for attracting, preparing, hiring and retaining women workers in the trades. Tradeswomen and their organizations are willing and able to help train and support their sisters in the Gulf. It is time for Congress and local civil leaders to take the high road that will offer families the path to economic well-being and ultimately fill the community’s coffers. Officials and leaders at all levels of government--whether federal, state, county or parish--must:
o Ensure that families who lost everything play a central role in planning and rebuilding their communities. Diverse Gulf Coast community organizations must be engaged from the beginning; otherwise, developers and contractors who have no stake or understanding of the needs of specific neighborhoods or counties are likely to develop solutions and create new infrastructures that do not meet local needs.
o Give preference to residents and evacuees of the affected communities for jobs created in the reconstruction process. Contractors in the rebuilding process should be required to do outreach, assisted by government at all levels, to identify and hire residents to fill these jobs. The rules regarding hiring, training, and salary, for example, should be made explicit in every clean-up or rebuilding grant or contract.
o Reinstate federal requirements that provide women and people of color an opportunity for full participation in the reconstruction of their own communities. These programs are proven vehicles for including representation of all Americans, helping to move them to economic self-sufficiency.
Private contractors receiving government contracts/grants must acknowledge affirmative action goals, guarantee that women and people of color are recruited, that hiring is monitored, and affirmative action procedures are enforced.
o Allocate funds to build and strengthen the infrastructure of communities through the expansion of public works programs like those related to school construction, economic development, and security programs. The government must link rebuilding to economic development strategies that upgrade the jobs and skills of those in the region, as well as those who have been displaced.
o Rather than reduce work supports for low-income struggling families, resources must be made available to provide the kind of childcare, health care, food stamps and housing essential to a worker’s ability to be and stay on the job.
Use a realistic benchmark, like the Self-Sufficiency Standards for Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, to determine the kind of income and supports families need to truly make ends meet. Policies and programs, whether they be economic development plans to bring business back into urban or rural areas or making health or housing supports available, must establish a goal of self-sufficiency for all of the families in the affected states and in states where families have been relocated. The Louisiana Self-Sufficiency Standard demonstrates that for a single parent with one infant and a preschooler in New Orleans, even with a wage of $13.10, this family will have no money for a security deposit for a new apartment, private health insurance, prescription glasses, or take-out food.
o Make resources available to promote and support recruitment and preparation of women for jobs in the skilled trades and other nontraditional occupations related to the rebuilding. Establish resources for a) technical assistance to workforce entities to build their capacity to support women clients' awareness and knowledge of nontraditional career pathways, b) for helping community based organizations develop preparatory training programs, and c) to assure employers have the ability to establish equitable worksites and training opportunities for women.
We can learn much from the remarkable tradeswomen and other women who led rebuilding initiatives in communities in Nicaragua, South Africa and other areas following ravages of national weather, economic and war devastation that decimated communities similar to the Gulf coast hurricanes' damage. We must incorporate the examples of their initiatives, learn from their efforts, and affirm the models of community transformation that they led/are leading. Such examples of women’s responses to tragedies around the world can provide hope and inspiration.
Rebuilding the lives, families and the communities of the Gulf Coast is a responsibility we all share. We can and must change the face of devastation to one of hope and well-being. The women of the Gulf Coast are prepared to their part. We must do ours.
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