Whelan: Despite CV of vets’ jobs bill, work toward ‘reasonable’ compromise will go on

TRENTON – The sponsor of a bill designed to boost military veterans’ employment opportunities in highway construction expressed frustration Tuesday that the bill was conditionally vetoed Monday by the governor.

Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), of Atlantic City, a prime sponsor of the bill, said he’s “frustrated” with the veto, saying it was the product of input from several stakeholders, including contractors.

Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill, S1415, which would have required the Turnpike Authority to provide jobs to contractors participating in Helmets to Hardhats, a program providing employment opportunities in various construction trades to returning military personnel.

Under the bill, the authority “would be required to guarantee that at least five percent and not more than 20 percent of the projected labor hours on any highway project are awarded to contractors who would be required to employ workers from an apprenticable trade participating in the pilot program, as certified by the New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council.”

The pilot program would last for 18 months, according to the bill, and the bill also stated that the workers be paid the prevailing wage during their employment.

While Christie supports the Helmets to Hardhats program, he said in his veto message that the bill may not help increase employment opportunities for service members.

“Significantly, the bill as currently drafted does not directly increase veteran employment and may actually have the unintended consequence of limiting veteran opportunities,” Christie’s message read.

Thus, Christie recommended the bill be amended so that the Turnpike Authority “establish benchmarks” for hiring and retaining veterans by the contractors that do business with the state Turnpike Authority.

“The authority shall develop goals to increase employment opportunities for all veterans during the pilot program period, including, but not limited to, goals for labor hours both in the administrative and construction areas related to highway projects.”

Whelan said that during the legislative process, there was some concern expressed by contractors about putting in place benchmarks, or specific requirements they would need to fulfill, when hiring veterans.

Among the concerns was having to prioritize veterans in the hiring process over longstanding members who have been unemployed for long periods of time, Whelan said. Some contractors have said as much as 40 percent of their workforce has been unemployed.

Nonetheless, Whelan said he will try to work on finding a reasonable compromise so that the legislation is not “onerous” on employers, and he will review Christie’s proposed amendments.

“It’s certainly something I will look into,” Whelan said.

The bill unanimously passed the Assembly on Dec. 17 and the Senate on Nov. 29.  

Christie has supported the Helmets to Hardhats program. In September 2011, he announced a partnership between H2H and the Labor Department, in which the department received $195,000 to help recruit service members for various apprenticeship programs.

“We know the commitment that veterans have given us. We like to give them more than a handshake (when they return home) and live a middle class life,” Christie said at the time a press conference in New Brunswick. 

Whelan: Despite CV of vets’ jobs bill, work toward ‘reasonable’ compromise will go on