A group of white women is threatening to sue if the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) removes them from a program that helps women and minority-owned businesses get work on highway projects.
WSDOT hired a consultant to conduct a disparity study last year to determine if women and specific minority groups are continuing to experience discrimination when it comes to being awarded contracts on public works projects.
Colorado-based BBC Research and Consulting issued a 678-page report last May that found firms owned by white women are winning enough jobs and don't need the extra help afforded them in the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program. Federal rules give DBEs a leg up on winning contracts on highway projects, as general contractors must hire disadvantaged firms to perform a set percentage of a project.
Many white women who own DBE-certified firms are opposed to the change. A newly formed group, Women in Highway Construction, is threatening a lawsuit, arguing that discrimination is alive and well in Washington state.
“Oh my gosh yes. They (men in the industry) don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to deal with you, they’re very uncomfortable dealing with you,” said Colleen Hallett, who owns Mobile Electrical Distributors in Seattle. “I have salesmen come in here and bypass me and go straight to my male employees even though I’m the boss.”
The disparity study found that other minority groups continue to suffer “substantial disparities," including businesses owned by African American, Asian-Pacific Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and South Asians.
"While the other firms (minority groups) got little to no work, white women-owned firms continued to get work for that time (considered in the study). That was good for that group, but the other firms didn't get much work," said Brenda Nnambi, WSDOT’s Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity.
Based on the results of the study, WSDOT is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Transportation to remove white women-owned firms from being counted toward project DBE goals. The waiver is being sought after white women have been included in the program for 31 years.
“The study revealed that Caucasian women-owned firms actually received more contract dollars than expected,” wrote WSDOT Assistant Communications Director Kris Rietmann in a December 16 press release. “Lacking evidence of discrimination against Caucasian women-owned business in the local marketplace, WSDOT cannot include them in contract-specific DBE goals.”
“This is a war on white women, and we’re not going to take it sitting down,” said Mary Guthmiller, who owns DBE Electric. “It’s going to cost the state of Washington a lot more grief and trouble to fight an injunctive action which we are willing to take if necessary to protect our right to be able to exist as businesses and participate in the program that we fought hard alongside our other minority businesses to even have any little bit of this construction dollar.”
At a public meeting Thursday in Shoreline, women told WSDOT officials the study which showed white women are not discriminated against is flawed. They cited several examples including that not enough women were interviewed for the report. Many also complained that the study counted inflated contract dollar amounts won by white women-owned businesses. The consultant counted the contract amounts promised to white women, not what was actually paid.
“It would be devastating if the DBE program for women businesses like myself would be taken away,” said Tina Benson, who owns T-Max Trucking and Silver-Streak Trucking. “We’ve worked really hard to get to where we are.”
Hallett of Mobile Electrical Distributors currently has work on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement project. She said without the DBE certification, she wouldn’t be participating on the mega-project.
“Absolutely not. Absolutely not. We would not have been even considered," said Hallett. “I am not blind. The only reason I’m being used is because I am a women-owned DBE business and they (the state’s contractor) get credit for using us. And without that (I’d) be history.”
WSDOT will continue to take public comments on the proposed change until February. After that, the agency will submit the waiver application as well as the public comments to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will make the final decision.
Hallett and other white women in the construction industry hope WSDOT scraps the plan. If not, they say small businesses in the region will suffer, as well as their employees.
"It will be awful, nobody wants to lay anybody off."