Making Local Hiring Deals Work for Community

The future site of "Hotel Ludlow?"

Last week, we posted an update on 180 Ludlow, the terminally stalled hotel project ensnared in Building Department red tape as well as protracted litigation.  Now, a follow-up on another aspect of this story: Community Board 3’s efforts to require local hiring if/when the hotel opens for business.

A few weeks ago developer Serge Hoyda asked CB3 to support his application for a variance (an extension of time) that’s being considered by the Board of Standards and Appeals.  CB3 wanted Hoyda to sign “stipulations” promising that local residents would make up at least 20% of the hotel staff.

Explaining that it would be premature to make a specific commitment, his attorney, Jessica Loeser, said Hoyda could only agree to make “best efforts” to hire locally. In response, the community board voted not to support the BSA application.

CB3’s decision is unlikely to sway the BSA commissioners one way or the other, but the debate brought up some bigger issues concerning “community benefit agreements,” which real estate developers and other businesses occasionally enter into with local community boards.

For a better understanding of how these local hiring agreements are actually administered, we sat down with David Garza (executive director of Henry Street Settlement) and Michael Zisser (executive director of University Settlement).  Along with several other groups, their organizations are partners in the Lower East Side Employment Network. Coordinating with Community Board 3, the network works with local hotels and other employers, sending job applicants their way.

Garza said they’ve been working with two hotels that signed CB3 stipulations: the Hotel on Rivington and the Thompson LES.   While good relationships have been built, the positive results have been modest so far. Garza said around 30 applicants from the LES Employment Network have been hired by businesses in the community (around two-thirds of those hired went to work at the two hotels).

Zisser, a public member of CB3’s land use committee, was part of the 180 Ludlow debate.  He was the driving force behind the proposed 20% local hiring requirement, which he argued would make the agreement stronger and, ultimately, allow both the network and the hotel operator to evaluate its success.

But in our interview both Zisser and Garza suggested it’s not enough to simply insert more specific requirements into these types of contracts. They said other steps are required if the network and the community board want to make local hiring more effective.

Garxa said it’s important to realize how far the network has come since its creation. Members include: Henry Street Settlement, University Settlement, the Chinese American Planning Council, Chinatown Manpower and Good Old Lower East Side.  It was a big deal, he said, that these social service organizations (often pitted against each other for government funding) came together at all.  Having broken down the walls, all of the organizations (as well as LES job applicants) benefited from greater coordination, pooled resources and open communication.

Big strides have been made, but the network is still very much a fledgling operation. It has no fulltime staff or resources of its own, meaning there’s no systematic way of tracking and evaluating placement results, even though network members have a general sense of who’s being hired and where they’re being placed.

Zisser and Garza said they have applied for a grant, which would enable them to hire a staff member to coordinate the network’s efforts.  Part of the job description would entail working with CB3 on the development and execution of local hiring agreements. Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, is a strong supporter of the Employment Network.  She believes it’s an effective way of connecting local job prospects to businesses coming into the community, and welcomes even closer ties between the network and community board.

Some people, however,  are skeptical that community benefit agreements made with hotel operators are worth the effort. They argue there’s little incentive for a business dependent less on local residents than on out-of-town guests to live up to commitments. But Stetzer said this argument misses the point. Many businesses coming to the Lower East Side want to be “good neighbors” and are eager to access a pool of qualified, pre-screened local job applicants, she said.

Some community board members argue the LES Employment Network should not only be ‘at the table” when stipulations are being negotiated but should also co-sign community benefit agreements that address local hiring. Others would like to see more transparency in reporting compliance with stipulations, including the public release of local hiring statistics by major employers.

It’s a conversation that’s just now beginning. We’ll let you know where the debate is headed.