The Electrical Worker online
September 2013

Mass. IBEW Fights to Keep Green Jobs
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Massachusetts can't boast of year-round sunny skies like California, but it is beginning to rival the Golden State when it comes to growth of the photovoltaic industry, with sleek black PV panels sprouting up seemingly everywhere.

For Brockton Local 223 Business Manager David Fenton, the question of who should be installing these panels is a no-brainer. "The moment those things hit the sun, we're talking live electricity here," he says. "The basic components of a solar array are the same as any other electrical system. We need to have state-licensed electricians doing this work."

Fenton serves on the Board of State Examiners of Electricians, which is responsible for setting and maintaining standards for workers in the electrical industry.

The Massachusetts government agrees, mandating that all solar work be done by professional electricians.

But despite having some of the highest standards for solar workers on the books, the Bay State has become a haven in recent years for low-road contractors looking to take advantage of the region's solar boom.

"It's a huge problem," says Boston Local 103 Business Agent Sean Callaghan. "A lot of these contractors think they can skirt the law and some are getting away with it."

Last spring, Gov. Deval Patrick announced that the state has reached a major renewable milestone first set in 2007, boosting the amount of solar electricity produced within Massachusetts from 3.5 megawatts to 250. Thanks to public incentives, the state reached this goal four years ahead of schedule. And the work keeps coming.

"We've got numerous projects coming down the pike," Fenton says. These include a $120 million, 24-megawatt solar project on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. Approximately 100 IBEW members are at work installing panels on schools and at landfills throughout the area.

The IBEW, along with the National Electrical Contractors Association, have filed more than 40 complaints with state regulatory officials since last year over contractors using unlicensed solar workers.

One of the biggest projects to be investigated by the state was Southern Sky Renewable Energy's 5.6- megawatt installation atop a closed landfill in Canton.

Local 103's Callaghan says that the company brought in unlicensed day laborers to install the panels in direct violation of state law.

After reporting this to town and state inspectors, he says elected officials were initially unresponsive to the IBEW's complaints. This indifference led Local 103 to start a grassroots public relations campaign to expose Southern Sky's dangerous installations.

Most recently the IBEW and NECA filed a complaint against Patriot Solar Group, LLC for using non-electricians to install racks at a large solar farm outside of Worcester.

The Board of State Examiners fined the Michigan-based company $1,000 earlier this year — a fine that Matt Lash, assistant executive manager of the Greater Boston chapter of the National Electrical Contractors, says is too low to deter lawbreakers.

"The truth is that the company can get a fine and still make money by cutting corners with safety and training," he says.

Not only did the company employ unlicensed workers for the project, but it was accused of falsely labeling Chinese-made panels as safety inspected.

A worker on the project told Worcester Local 96 Business Manager Leo Miller that subcontractors spent days re-labeling the panels with safety inspection stickers.

Critics say that the IBEW is only focused on winning those jobs for union members, but Lash says that the problem is not just a union issue.

"Employers who follow the rules — union and nonunion alike — suffer when others can get away with breaking the law," he says.

Dishonest renewable firms often pay lower-than-average wages, driving down working standards for green jobs and making it harder for licensed employers to win contracts.

"We're talking between $10 and $15 an hour for electrical work," Lash says of the pay rate for unlicensed labor. "How can responsible contractors compete with that?"

Even the nonunion Massachusetts Electrical Contractors Association joined the IBEW and NECA in expressing concern over the growing trend, signing on to a group letter to the state legislature last year, which called on lawmakers not to water down safety and licensing requirements for renewable projects.

"The installation of every piece of equipment for electrical solar generation has significant safety implications which should not be assigned to anyone who is not a licensed professional electrician," the letter states.

Lash says that it's largely to up to the IBEW and NECA to track down lawbreakers. He travels the state to investigate work sites, reporting violators to regulators. He also says that they are working closely with the state attorney general to crack down on violators.

"It's the law, but we have to keep the regulators' and politicians' feet to the fire to make sure it is enforced," says Local 103's Callaghan. "It is a big problem and unless we get in front of it, it will continue to grow."


Massachusetts is undergoing a solar power boom, but many out-of-state contractors are trying to take advantage of the situation by using low-paid, unlicensed installers on photovoltaic projects.

Credit: Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Deval Patrick.