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Articles | December 7, 2022

Workers on Solar’s Front Lines

Unions are fighting to ensure solar workers are skilled tradesmen, not just exploited temps.

The American Prospect

Workers “throw glass,” mounting photovoltaic panels on racking systems.

EL CAMPO, TEXAS – Gary Bylander has spent the last four years traveling the country in his camper installing solar panels, mostly through the temp staffing agency Aerotek. His last job was in San Antonio, where he worked for $18 an hour at an array owned by Korean subsidiary OCI Solar Power.

Every job for a temp agency in solar ends with uncertainty. After the San Antonio gig ended in October, Bylander thought he had talked his way into an upcoming project in Wisconsin. This is typical in solar, where the next temp job could be hundreds of miles away.

Still, Bylander’s mind was at ease until, over dinner, his wife felt a sharp pain in her abdomen and grew hot to the touch. “I’ve seen her sick, but I’ve never seen her how she was that day,” he told the Prospect. She was soon bent over from cramps; he raced her to the hospital.

As Bylander sat in the waiting room while his wife underwent tests, his phone beeped with a message from his Aerotek recruiter. She was requesting him the following day, a Friday, in Wisconsin, a 26-hour drive away. He couldn’t make it tomorrow, he said, but could be there on Monday.

More from Lee Harris

Later that same day, when Bylander tried to log in to the company website, which contains insurance information, he couldn’t access his account. The security questions were changed, he said, with a new question about the name of his firstborn son; he doesn’t have children. Meanwhile, the hospital quoted them $32,000 for emergency gallbladder removal surgery.

Bylander was already doubtful that Aerotek insurance would have covered the operation. The apparent lockout from the web interface clinched it: The family couldn’t afford the surgery. They decided to drive across the border to get his wife the surgery in Mexico. The Wisconsin job was in the back of his mind. “I thought, it’ll be fine. I’ll just handle this, and then I’ll talk to my recruiters.”

After a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Antonio, his wife underwent the surgery in Piedras Negras and recovered safely. But when he texted recruiters and his old superintendent, asking them to confirm that he could still start on Monday, he received no response—and he still hasn’t. The only communication he has received from Aerotek since then, he told the Prospect, is an automated message asking how he enjoyed the experience with the company. He was never even issued a termination notice. (Aerotek did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Prospect.)

“Their recruiting office is somewhere in Iowa. They don’t know to put a face to the name. They don’t know how I work out in the field,” Bylander said. “The guy that was hired yesterday, and me being there for four years—we’re the exact same guy” to them.

Bylander’s situation is typical in one of the fastest-growing segments of the construction industry, solar panel installation, where you can pour in years of your life without getting ahead. Staffing agencies are notoriously unpredictable, known for nepotistic hiring and promotion, arbitrary firings, low pay, and zero transparency.

Unionized employees said that job security allows them to pursue the itinerant lifestyle typical of solar workers with more confidence.

The low quality of solar jobs is an open secret. “Building Solar Farms May Not Build the Middle Class,” The New York Times cautioned last year. Labor reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley wrote about the brutal conditions faced by workers living in tents and motels, chasing jobs from state to state. But until recently, solar has remained a relatively niche industry, and workers have endured backbreaking conditions in relative obscurity.

Now, solar energy is at the core of Democrats’ political strategy to recapture working-class voters by creating good jobs in green industries. Jobs in installation are taking off, sped along by the Biden administration’s climate and jobs bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed in August. A separate fight to stand up domestic solar manufacturing could create highly skilled, higher-paid jobs—and will also be an extraordinarily heavy lift to pull off.

The law has likely unleashed an even bigger burst of green spending than expected. Analysts at the investment bank Credit Suisse say the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of how much tax credits will be used undershoots by as much as half. Businesses and households will use the tax credits at such a high rate, they predict, that the IRA could trigger $1.7 trillion in investment over the next decade.

Much of that investment will flow to states where jobs in the energy sector have been concentrated. It’s a chance to overhaul energy jobs in parts of the Sun Belt where unions are low-density and jobs are high-risk.

California, where the largest amount of solar energy has been deployed, has used almost entirely union work through the five building trades. But Texas is hot on California’s tail. A handful of union projects in right-to-work states like Texas provide a glimpse into what the industry could look like if organized labor can use high demand as an opportunity to organize.

To see this sunnier version of the industry, I went to El Campo, a hamlet outside Houston that grew up as a shipping point on the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway. Today, Tokyo Gas America, a Japanese utility, and TotalEnergies, a French petroleum firm, are leasing fallowed farmland in El Campo to plug 10,000 acres of solar panels into an electrical grid that feeds the hurricane-exposed refineries of the muggy Gulf Coast.

Construction company Rosendin Electric has hired some 1,800 members of Houston Local 716 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) at this site, which is expected to be the largest solar facility in Texas to date.

“We’ve found that in right-to-work states, being union is an advantage, especially in a market where labor is short all around,” Mike Greenawalt, Rosendin’s CEO, told the Prospect. “We flourish in Arizona, Texas, the Carolinas, Tennessee.”

As the solar installation industry takes off, this is the moment where it could be put on two wildly divergent tracks—decent union jobs for electricians, laborers, and other tradesmen, or exploitative temp staffing agencies. With tight labor supply, heavy investment, and new construction worker protections in the IRA, unions just might seize the moment to raise prevailing wages and turn temp solar jobs into craft work. But it will be an uphill battle to recapture routed terrain.

AFTER 11 YEARS AS A CORRECTIONAL OFFICER with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Amanda “Pinkie” Hebert decided to quit and install solar panels for a living.

Her husband worked in El Campo for Rosendin, one of the largest employee-owned electrical contractors in the United States, and loved his job. For a long time, though, Hebert had doubts. She faced near-daily harassment working at an understaffed prison, and didn’t want to find more of the same in the male-dominated construction industry.

Hebert heard through friends that Rosendin had dealt swiftly and seriously with a few rumored cases of sexual harassment. And, since taking the leap, she has been vindicated. “Rosendin actually seems to be a company that gives a damn.” (“I think I sounded like a company fangirl, and I want to point out that I’m absolutely not. I’m a union girl,” she added in a follow-up note.)

Hebert has been active in IBEW Local 716 meetings, and is especially enthusiastic about recruiting more women into the construction industry, where she believes the explosion of new opportunities should not go exclusively to men.

Leaving her stultifying job as a prison guard has freed up her energy. After a long week, she said, “I feel good enough to go home and make dinner, instead of just ordering pizza, or falling asleep in the shower.” In her new spare time, Hebert has even found time to take courses in psychology, a longtime passion, she said. “I’m 40 years old, and I’m starting over.”

Texas’s hot energy jobs market has provided more workers with similar opportunities to jump ship. Rosendin’s unionized employees described high levels of hope for the new industry, and similar experiences on the job: gritty but gratifying work, reliable management, and an unusual degree of job security in an otherwise highly unpredictable, fickle, and nepotistic industry.

Amanda “Pinkie” Hebert, right, left her job as a Texas correctional officer to work in solar. Photos by Lee Harris.

For some, that job security allows them to pursue the itinerant lifestyle typical of solar workers with more confidence. Skylar Dossenbach, Hebert’s superintendent, has traveled to more than ten states with the company over the past 13 years. Originally from California, she owns horses and participates in cattle herding competitions. Traveling is part of the thrill.

Others are committed to sticking around South Texas. David Woolley, a soft-spoken electrician who previously worked at Freeport LNG and BASF gas and chemical refineries, says he loves getting to hone his electrical skills in outdoor work. At the gas plants, “we always had to be careful walking beneath the pipes, might have acid or something dripping on you, or get exposed to chemicals,” he said. “It was nasty, the plant was dirty … I worried about getting blowed up.” Now, he sees a career installing clean energy, and he would like his son to join him.

Union workers with Rosendin described a basic level of care that is unheard of at other sites. During the sweltering Texas summer, the company provided “cooling stations” with fans and cold water for workers during their breaks. Several employees said that on other job sites, they had seen colleagues pass out in the hot sun.

General foreman Joe Ledezma, who works out of IBEW Local 1015 in McAllen, has worked non-union jobs in other states like Kansas, and found that some paid great wages. But the final straw in the non-union sector came while he was working on a job in Baytown, when his grandfather, who raised him, died. He explained that he needed the day off.

“If you leave, who’s going to do the job?” he remembers being asked by his supervisor, who told him not to bother coming back. “I’m like, ‘I’m pretty sure we’re all replaceable,’” Ledezma said. In his new job at Rosendin, he feels confident that he could tell his superintendent that he needs as much as a month off, “to take care of business.”

IN NEIGHBORING FIELDS ON THE SAME JOB SITE, Rosendin employees work alongside laborers from Workrise, a temp staffing agency hired by the project developer to install racking systems, staking brackets into the muddy farmland. Despite their proximity, Rosendin employees have almost no contact with Workrise hires, several said. But rumors about the terrible working conditions spread through the fields.

“I personally never seen ’em even take breaks. I don’t even see ’em take lunch. I’m sure they take lunch, but I never seen ’em do it. And they’re all around!” one Rosendin employee told the Prospect. “Whenever you’re in the union, you have a high belief system. We’re a brotherhood, and they’re not in the club,” explained Jordan Bonds, an electrician. “We don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to us.”

Despite numerous inquiries, I was not able to get in touch with a single Workrise hire at the El Campo site for this story. But interviews with several non-union solar workers, and people familiar with temp staffing agencies, revealed that workers are subject to highly volatile and unpredictable terms and conditions.

Five years ago, the industry standard wage for general labor in solar was $18 an hour, according to a recruiter for a top temp staffing agency who agreed to speak with the Prospect on condition of anonymity. Hourly wages rose during the pandemic to around $21, and pay as high as $28 was not unheard of, as workers told recruiters that they might as well stay home and receive unemployment.

Since then, the industry standard wage for general labor has fallen back to $18 an hour, despite recent hype around solar contracts. Temp agencies attract workers by offering a flashy per diem, a daily allowance for travel and meals, when workers come from more than two hours away. Unions, on the other hand, typically pay higher base wages but source local workers who don’t need to travel.

Training a “solar installer” rather than an electrician is like training a “burger-flipper” rather than a chef.

That is teeing up a brewing fight over travel pay that, for the building trades, is déjà vu. During President Obama’s second term, as the administration pushed to raise standards in West Texas’s nascent wind industry, construction companies like Mortenson were willing to negotiate on many labor issues, but travel pay was a sticking point, according to a person knowledgeable about the talks. Temp agencies, willing to provide per diems, subsequently took off.

“They’ll give you a per diem just to get warm bodies,” said Bonds, the Rosendin electrician. But while working for non-union shops, he found that colleagues were new and untrained, and the level of turnover meant that people were quickly thrust into unsafe jobs. “They had me in charge of doing things I had never done in my whole life, just because I happened to be a decent employee—one of the few.”

Temp agencies require workers to shoulder all the risk. They are only paid for days when they work, so they are not paid their per diem if it rains all week, though they still bear the costs of living onsite. Workers haggle over wages and compensation, and pay at the same job site for similar work can vary widely.

Staffing companies ask workers to put up travel and lodging costs up front, and work at least one weekend before they get their first paycheck. The recruiter recalled one man who drove across the country for several months of work, before being laid off two weeks into the job, and getting stuck with travel costs in both directions.

Now, temp agencies foresee major returns from President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Workrise, traditionally an oil and gas industry recruiter that changed its name last year from RigUp, has raised several rounds of funding from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). TrueBlue, the parent company of PeopleReady, a top temp staffing agency in solar, has spun green temp jobs into a lucrative investment. The company used 38 percent of capital for share buybacks over the 2017–2021 period, and separately predicted high growth rates in its latest earnings report since the IRA “could inject billions into the labor market.”

UNIONS ARE NOW FIGHTING TO CAPTURE a greater share of jobs in an industry where temp staffing agencies are eager to come in and undercut local workers.

Sometimes that has meant making hard compromises. Rosendin’s El Campo site is the first major solar project Houston IBEW Local 716 has partnered on, and union president Mark Landrum has learned a few lessons.

“We did give them a little bit of a break, since we hadn’t done it before, on some of the pay and benefits, to make sure we got the work, because it was so massive,” he acknowledged in an interview with the Prospect.

Most of the workers sent to El Campo through IBEW are not electricians but solar construction workers, or “CWS,” who individually lift and mount each of the more than one million solar panels that will eventually outfit the site. While a smaller apprenticeship program exists for members doing electrical work, like welding and stringing wires, CWS, who are the majority of workers on the site, are paid a floor of $15 to $18 an hour, according to Landrum.

The biggest concession the union made may not have been on pay, but on something seemingly more technical: the title of workers employed on the job. CWS, or “solar installer,” is a controversial designation.

Training a “solar installer” rather than an electrician is like training a “burger-flipper” rather than a chef. It confers a limited number of skills, which are only appropriate for the current industry. And it does not correspond to any Department of Labor–certified apprenticeship program, so it could be a dead end for workers who could otherwise flip to electrical work in another sector.

Harold Casner, 20, has been working with Rosendin for almost three years, since graduating high school. Cheery, with floppy blond hair, he says he plans to eventually join an apprenticeship program, but he’s not in a rush.

“I get life insurance, and they provide me with whatever I need, really,” Casner told the Prospect. He likes being exposed to working with various types of equipment. Now that they have the IRA in hand, Landrum said, the union plans to insist on apprenticeship programs for future deals. This was just about getting a foot in the door.

Using IBEW to “throw glass,” as workers refer to lifting and screwing in panels, is also controversial. Laborers have argued that this might be better suited to them. Asked about this, Landrum said, “eventually all trades will try to claim portions of the work. Of course IBEW wants it all.”

The Rosendin employee at left said that being a member of IBEW grants him competitive pay, even in right-to-work states like Texas and Florida.

Nationally, the building trades are eager to make sure that a new class of green workers are exposed to a wide range of skills. Apprenticeship requirements to access the tax credits in the IRA are meant to help this along. But unions expect they could be tough to implement in a Republican administration, so there are only a couple of years to cement industry trends.

A worker with a narrow skill set—like a solar panel plugger-inner—has to travel to chase jobs. A journeyman electrician, on the other hand, can stay put as different projects come through—solar, wind, or electric car battery charging stations. A more diverse skill set, in other words, increases family and community stability.

As the industry takes off, and as contractors pay prevailing wages, unions could gain more of a foothold. But it will be months before that happens. Formula grants went out in the summer and fall. Competitive grants are only now being awarded and finalized. Even water infrastructure loans are just getting made. We won’t see the first wave of this year’s spending until spring. Labor demand on the core infrastructure side is probably a few months away. All told, the IRA will take at least a two-year ramp.

“In the state of Texas, our biggest thing holding us back is people. If there’s a gigawatt out there to do, we may not even pursue it, because we absolutely cannot staff the job,” said Greenawalt, Rosendin’s CEO.

Other forms of unpredictability that have plagued the industry have also affected Rosendin. The company laid off more than 200 workers over the summer when panels made by China-based JinkoSolar Holding Co. got stuck in customs. (Jinko sources most of its polysilicon from U.S. and European-based suppliers like Michigan’s Hemlock Semiconductor, it said in a statement.)

More reliable domestic supply chains are the other major part of Biden’s solar investment strategy. The goal is for solar panels to be not only installed but also manufactured in America.

That could also create more permanent jobs, whereas installation is largely transitory. While Rosendin created hundreds of construction jobs, the solar array will only require two full-time permanent jobs for operation and maintenance of the facility. The company requested and received a special tax abatement, which would normally have required the creation of ten jobs.

LOCAL UNION LEADERS DON’T WANT to miss the moment, but favor more options for workers. “We’ve got to find a way to introduce the green while we still have the oil, and make it a nice, even 50/50 split,” said Landrum, the Houston IBEW president.

Bylander is now working through a different temp agency, LaborMax. He has to wake up early enough to arrive by 5 a.m. and accept a task for that day. The most he has made in a day with LaborMax is $86 for ten hours of construction work, building a Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. “Those are trades that are supposed to get paid way better. But I guess they found a little life hack, going through a temp agency and asking who knows how to do this, and paying the absolute bare minimum,” he said.

Now, Bylander is trying to be hired into the oil and gas industry. He has submitted over 20 applications to companies including Halliburton, ProPetro, and Schlumberger. But his résumé hasn’t attracted much interest. He recently updated it, skipping all mention of the solar industry, and instead listing the relevant skills he has gained: hydraulic mechanic, heavy equipment operator, 12k operator. But he’s not optimistic.

“What’s a bunch of old oil field people going to think when someone like me is applying? There’s all kinds of things that go into solar. Every single trade is in solar. But they think, all this kid knows how to do is throw panels.”

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About Rosendin

Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., Rosendin is employee-owned and one of the largest electrical contractors in the United States, employing over 7,500 people, with revenues averaging $2 billion. Established in 1919, Rosendin remains proud of our more than 100 years of building quality electrical and communications installations and value for our clients but, most importantly, for building people within our company and our communities. Our customers lead some of the most complex construction projects in history and rely on us for our knowledge, our ability to scale, and our dedication to quality. At Rosendin, we work to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential by building a culture that is diverse, safe, welcoming, and inclusive.

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