How historic infrastructure investments can benefit women workers

Over the past two years, Congress passed what many believe to be the most transformative economic legislation in a generation. The Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law have the potential to reshape the American labor force by supporting millions of well-paying union jobs that empower workers. 

A central tenet of all three laws is that the jobs will be accessible to women and people of color. But the vast majority of them will be in construction and manufacturing, industries long dominated by men. In order to finish the job, Congress, state and local leaders and advocates must work together to ensure these investments create high-quality jobs for all working people and do not leave women behind. 

Women, despite making up nearly half of the American workforce, are substantially underrepresented in construction and manufacturing, as racism and sexism have long deterred new generations of women from entering the industries and pushed talented women out of their fields. 

In 2021, more than a quarter of tradeswomen reported that they were always or frequently harassed just for being a woman. For women of color, the picture of combined gender and racial harassment is even more shocking, leading to low representation and high attrition. Moreover, federal funds for manufacturing jobs do not include basic protections like wage standards, and while the vast majority of support for construction jobs includes requirements to pay market wages, the industry is rife with wage theft.

So how do we ensure that President Biden’s legislation becomes a catalyst to change industry norms? Ongoing partnerships and monitoring can hold accountable state and local government and private sector recipients. 

For example, as part of an $8 billion investment to establish regional hydrogen hubs, the federal government is requiring applicants to establish community benefits plans focused on expanding access to high-quality jobs with evaluation criteria, such as the efficacy of partnerships with labor and community organizations, applicants’ support for workers’ rights to a free and fair chance to join a union and inclusion of regularly reported demographic data to track project success in recruiting and retaining workers from underserved communities. Doing so in real time would help the government and the public identify recipients who are falling short and guide them on how to improve.

Also, some jurisdictions are giving worker and community groups a role in adopting new standards and ensuring they are enforced. Oregon’s Department of Transportation’s newly-launched community workforce agreement program allows unions and community organizations to partner with funding recipients to establish legally binding requirements on wages, benefits and other terms of employment. That can include measures that expand access to high-wage jobs for women and other underrepresented groups, such as targeted and local hire provisions, pre-apprenticeship programs, supportive services and ongoing compliance monitoring.

Ultimately, all recipients of government funding — not only those receiving support from President Biden’s industrial investments — should be accountable for ensuring access for women and women of color. For example, publicly available federal databases tracking recipients of funds should require reporting on workforce size and demographics. In addition, community workforce agreements and other sorts of project-specific agreements to support workforce quality, safety and stability should be commonplace.

Already, the Biden administration has supported workforce stability by helping ensure contracted construction work is subject to project labor agreements and working with Congress to increase access for local workers to some jobs funded through new government investments, but it has the authority to expand the use of these strategies. In addition, Congress will debate legislation — including the National Defense Authorization Act, the Federal Aviation Authorization Act and the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act — that could include measures to raise wages, increase access and build power for workers whose jobs are funded through federal spending and thereby improve the lives of millions of workers.

High-quality, union construction and manufacturing jobs could be life-changing for working-class women. Adopting standards and monitoring now will help ensure that the new infrastructure policies — and all federal spending — uphold their commitment to pay good wages, empower workers, and increase access for women and women of color.

Sharita Gruberg is vice president of economic justice at the National Partnership for Women & Families. Karla Walter is the senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress.