Green Jobs May Not All be Good Jobs

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Tompkins Weekly – May 10, 2010
By Carl Feuer
As our economy transitions toward greater sustainability and environmental responsibility, as we must, it is important that we focus on more than just preserving or restoring the quality of our environment.

Yes, we must produce, install and maintain more solar panels and generators; construct and establish more wind energy turbines; establish more recycling programs; develop, produce and use more green products; make our homes and building more energy efficient and so on. But the jobs involved in preserving or restoring our environment must be sustainable, too. A wage that is too low or work that is too unsafe undermines the viability
and the future of that worker and his/her family, in stark contrast to the impact that work has on maintaining
the long-term viability of our environment.

Weatherization is a good example. Most of us applauded the Recovery Act plan to provide weatherization services for many thousands of low-income families, more than tripling the federal investment in this area. Integral to
this plan is the creation of some 100,000 weatherization jobs over three years. But in our appreciation of this new green initiative, who among us has stopped to question the safety of these planned jobs, or whether they would pay a family sustaining wage?

Yet residential energy efficiency work, like residential construction in general, often relies on small contractors with low-paid and part-time or seasonal workers, and who put little effort in worker safety training or in creating safe worksites. These green jobs typically are not safe jobs. Significant safety and health hazards include exposure to
lead, asbestos, isocyanates, mold and the risk of injury or death from falls or electrical hazards. And they typically do not pay a family-sustaining wage, either, so workers face a double whammy.

A study a few years ago of the affordable housing residential construction workforce in New York City, while not strictly comparable to the home weatherization workforce, provides a window into many of these jobs. The Fiscal Policy Institute report estimated that two-thirds of the workers were illegally employed either as independent contractors or off the books, receiving very low pay — many in the $10 per hour range — with few benefits and
deprived of basic worker rights and any training opportunities. While not covered in the report, safety conditions in this industry are also abysmal.

Weatherization programs must be measured not only by the number of homes served, total energy savings realized and total carbon emissions avoided, but also by the number of good jobs created. And it is the same for the green and sustainable economy we seek to build.

A green future must be built, but safe and living wage jobs must be integral to it. Worker safety and family-sustaining wages have to be part of green manufacturing, green construction and green energy. It’s not a matter of choosing either a green future or safe, living wage jobs. It’s both. To produce a sustainable future, the work that
goes into it must also be sustainable.

Carl Feuer is a board member of the Midstate Education & Service Foundation.

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