We Have the People, How do We Help?

Guest blog by Callie Casstevens, LABB intern

On Thursday, May 20, the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau conducted a panel discussion at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, that was supposed to inform attendees of how they could be trained and take advantage of employment opportunities in the oil spill cleanup process. Attendees included women and minority small business owners who were eager to gain employment with BP. Instantly, the room became aware that the panel was missing some key figures, BP did not show up, nor did the Department of Labor. The panel consisted of a Tulane professor who acted as a moderator, Mike Rivera, an OSHA representative, Angela a Job One Career Solutions employee, and Rachael Woods of the OFCC, a department that handles discrimination complaints.

The goal of the forum was to promote employment and training opportunities to women and minority small business owners. However, once the panel began discussing their roles, it was evident that the forum was unable to actually help anyone in the room attain such opportunities. No one knew exactly what small business and contractors had to do in order to get hired by BP to participate in the clean up process. What was evident was the bureaucratic red tape that even a NASA engineer would have difficulty maneuvering through.

Mike Rivera declared that OSHA was working as a unified command, which consists of the Coast Guard heading the clean up process and OSHA as well as BP participating in various aspects. OSHA’s role is to review and assist in safety issues and provide personal protective equipment. I found this a striking statement, since one week ago in the Port Sulphur Community Meeting, the OSHA representative stated that there was no need for safety equipment such as respirators for individuals cleaning up the oil, that no health threats were evident. I guess now they are recognizing the health risks involved with cleaning up not only oil, but oil mixed with dispersement chemicals, which the EPA still has yet to disclose what health risks are associated with such a heavy mixture.

A woman named Angela from Job One Career Services discussed how her company takes applications from individuals wanting to work in the clean up process. The applicants information is then sent in boxes to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and from there it is typed into a database. Once BP asks for certain individuals, the office in Baton Rouge scours through the database for “qualified” individuals. Many attendees were expressing confusion, after all, this panel was created to inform small businesses owned by women and minorities as to how to get their own employees involved with the cleanup. The panel however, seemed to only discuss individual applications, not small contractors or business owner opportunities.

The information the attendees needed went unanswered, one woman from a small marine construction company stated, “We have the people, we want to help. They are all trained and certified but we just don’t know how, no one seems to know anything.” The response was that they would take everyone’s e-mail down and get back to them. Yet another woman expressed concern at the lack of local companies being utilized throughout the cleanup process, reminiscent of Katrina, when many locals were unable to obtain employment for the cleanup of their own state. Yet again, no answers.

One aspect I did not quite understand, and I do not think I was the only one, was the issue of certification required to get employment for the cleanup. Discussion surrounded TWIC (transportation worker identification credential), in order to work in the clean up, one has to obtain a TWIC card. It is $132.50, and is the result of September 11, 2001, thus, every port or entrance onto land is considered to be at terroristic threat. The TWIC card requires two forms of identification, fingerprinting, and a thorough back ground check, the processing time can range anywhere between 2-8 weeks. That is quite a delay when every minute of every hour of every day, oil and dispersement rolls more onto the shores of the Gulf Coast.

The one woman I felt especially bad for was one that came in fifteen minutes or so late, out of breathe, sweating from the notorious New Orleans humidity, she had driven all the way from Jackson, Mississippi to try and obtain employment for her environmental engineering firm. She suggested a great idea, that the panel should partner together and release a comprehensive list to BP of the attendees who were there and willing to work. Response, “That is a great idea, we will take note of that.” The Tulane moderator was visibly frustrated with the panel’s  lack of answers, she stated, “This just goes to show that people need to be more proactive. Because this illustrates just how disorganized this is, the lack of answers…” Many attendees shuffled restlessly in their chairs, hoping for some piece of information that might help them. One woman declared, “I came today to promote my services, to bid, but it is not anything like that…so where do we go?” The response was that they would call the Louisiana Work Commission for an answer. Many websites were spouted, many organizational names given, but no concrete advice for these small business owners to act on and help clean up their own state.  The OSHA representative declared at one point that BP already had contractors and subcontractors with Haliburton…so again, where do the local companies go to help?

When we left, the crowd slowly walked out of the room, hopeless. This is a pattern I am beginning to see a lot of lately. In Port Sulphur the fishermen were begging for some direction, specific places to go for help, yet no answers were given to them. Today, the small business owners wanted to help utilize their own companies expertise and experience to clean up their own state, yet were unable to gain any tangible information to move on.

When I got home, I started thinking about everything that I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. The lack of organization, answers, or any type of help. I got a phone call from a Port Sulphur fisherman who is one of many who has lost his entire way of life. He stated, “You know, it seems as if it’s already going underneath the rug, people need to see this, understand it. I’ve been a fisherman all of my life, what do I do now? How are we going to live?” I couldn’t answer any of his questions, I just sat on the phone thinking, why isn’t more actually being done? I think in order to move forward these different organizations, such as BP, OSHA, EPA, DEQ, as well as the labor bureau, need to TALK to one another, collaborate, have an actual plan. I know that when I have a paper to write for school, I write out an outline, a guide as to what I want to present and what the goal is that I want to convey to the reader. Yet this is not being done, no one is talking to one another. These individuals need to, after panel discussions such as the one in Port Sulphur and the one today in New Orleans, to exchange numbers, sit down and make a comprehensive plan that they can give to people, instead of just random websites. Because not everyone has a computer, as the fisherman I talked to stated, “I don’t know computers, so how else do I get help, no one picks up the phone…” They need to pick it up and give answers…period.

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