File photo: Denise Civiletti

In a long-sought victory for construction trade unions, Riverhead Town has amended its procurement policy to require contractors and subcontractors on certain construction contracts to participate in an apprenticeship program approved by the state labor department.

The town board voted unanimously to adopt the procurement policy amendment at its Aug. 7 meeting, in a packed meeting room filled with union representatives and members.

Construction contracts in excess of $250,000 or 100,000 square feet, which ever is less, are subject to the new requirement.

Area labor unions have been asking the Riverhead Town Board to adopt an apprenticeship program requirement for many years, but the idea never before gained support of a board majority to even hold a public hearing on the proposal — despite numerous occasions when union members packed the meeting room and spoke in favor of the requirement.

Supporters argue that the requirement of an apprenticeship program encourages union membership and strengthens labor unions, which they say provide construction trades workers with livable wages and good benefits.

At a public hearing on the proposal last month, local residents who earn their livelihood in the construction trades unions stood to voice support for an apprenticeship program.

Kevin Tuthill of Jamesport, a 2010 Riverhead High School graduate said he is “the perfect example of what the benefits of the apprentice language could be.” He said he realized quickly that college was not for him and was able to become an apprentice in the Heat and Frost Insulators Local No. 12.

“In four years I went from being a college dropout working minimum wage to mastering my craft and becoming a journeyman,” Tuthill said. “I’m 25 years old with a pension, an annuity, healthcare and a well-paying trade,” making it possible for him to have a future in Riverhead.

Brian Nigro of Riverhead said he has been a member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 28 for 21 years. “I was able to buy my house because of my union and the wage that I earn,” Nigro said, urging the board to adopt the procurement policy amendment.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposal at the July 17 public hearing. The record was left open for 10 days to allow written comment.

At last week’s work session, council members Jodi Giglio and James Wooten balked at the idea of moving forward with the change at the Aug. 7 regular meeting, seeking instead to schedule it for another work session discussion.

“There have been several small business owners that have come in and talked to me. They have concerns,” Giglio said. “I don’t think we should be adopting it until we have spoken as a board again about it to address some of their concerns and additional costs to the town.”

Council members Tim Hubbard and Catherine Kent were both absent from the work session last week. Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said she would put the resolution on the agenda and if a board majority wanted to table it, they could do so.

But neither Wooten nor Giglio sought to table the resolution Tuesday; both joined the rest of the board in the vote to adopt it. First, however, Giglio moved to amend the policy to delete a provision that would have prevented bidding by contractors that do not participate in an approved apprenticeship program — though the requirement remained intact that contracts subject to the policy be awarded to contractors that participate in an approved apprenticeship program. The board agreed to the amendment and then unanimously voted to adopt.

Wooten said Tuesday that “five years ago there was an unfair playing field” but things had changed, he said, and he could now support the policy “as long as there’s a competitive bid process.”

Before casting her vote in favor, Giglio, reading from a prepared statement
said, “You have all stressed to me that you will work with me and the town to makes sure we are creating a symbiotic relationship that will in the end be in the best interests of the town, its residents business owners, both large and small and that people are trained and have good, high-paying jobs. We need to promote high-paying jobs and the apprenticeship program affords opportunities for many,” she said.

“Riverhead is one of the highest-taxed, most in debt towns in Suffolk County,” Giglio continued. “We are also the holder of the largest tract of undeveloped land on Long Island. I hope that as the votes are cast today, this town board can agree we need to work together toward the development of EPCAL, both during construction and to create the jobs thereafter. EPCAL is the perfect fit for the apprenticeship program,” she said.

The crowded meeting room erupted in applause following each positive vote.

“We’ve sought this for a very long time,” Building and Construction Trades Council president Matthew Aracich said. “Area standard wages protect the middle class families financially, provide opportunity for all and strengthen the local economy.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.