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Vt. rejected workers in wake of storm Irene

By Lisa Rathke
Associated Press / October 15, 2011

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MONTPELIER - The state has acknowledged that people looking for work were turned away from the cleanup at the state office complex in Waterbury in the days after Tropical Storm Irene but says it was a coordination problem that was cleared up in several days.

Security was set up to keep away possible looters and to maintain public safety during the emergency, said Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services.

“What we were faced with at the site was the potential for looters and just keeping people safe by keeping the public out because there was just so much going on at a feverish pitch,’’ he said. “We didn’t want somebody to step in front of a truck.’’

But barring people from applying for work “was disheartening to some people, particularly those who are no longer receiving unemployment benefits,’’ said state Senator Vincent Illuzzi. Once the problem was discovered, security was advised, and 93 Vermonters were hired, Obuchowski said.

“It wasn’t just Vermonters were being turned away, it was everybody being turned away, regrettably, because our security was . . . so tight,’’ he said.

The state hired about 44 contractors to do the $25 million cleanup, mucking out buildings and removing damaged furniture, building materials, and paper. Four of the contractors were from out of state, officials said.

Four companies served as general contractors, including G.W. Savage Corp. of South Burlington. The company brought in a crew of about 70 from Vermont, hired subcontractors and another 93 Vermonters, Obuchowski said.

At the height the cleanup in the first three weeks, nearly 200 workers were at the site, said Dave Burley, state director of facilities and operations.

The out-of-state companies were hired because they had specific skills and equipment and were available, Obuchowski said.

“I think the common knowledge is that people feel comfortable working with people they’ve worked with in the past and had success, especially in an emergency situation,’’ Obuchowski said.

He met last week with the president of the Vermont Building Trades Association, a representative of the Vermont Labor Council, and Illuzzi, who want to ensure that Vermonters have an opportunity to bid on future work and that union contractors are considered.

The work, which is nearly complete and included removing 650 to 700 tons of damaged material, was awarded in no-bid contracts.

Obuchowski said ensuring that unionized companies are hired is a matter of cost and building relationships with those firms. “Again it comes down the lowest reasonable bid,’’ he said. “And that’s where the Vermont companies have to sharpen their pencils and do things the Vermont way.’’