By Beau Eastes

The Bulletin

New job opportunities could be headed to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation as soon as this summer.

The Warm Springs Tribal Council last week unanimously approved the creation of its own Tribal Employment Rights Ordinance, an ordinance that gives all Native Americans, and especially Warm Springs tribal members, preferred status for any open jobs on the reservation. The plan also includes a memorandum of understanding with the Oregon Department of Transportation that any state and/or federal road construction projects within a 60-mile radius of the reservation — a huge swath of land that encompasses the cities of Bend, Prineville, The Dalles, Gresham, and Stayton, among others — could only be bid on by TERO-certified contractors who promise to employ a certain number of Native American workers. The Warm Springs TERO plan will be the third such program in the state. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde already have TERO plans in operation.

The tribes, located in Northeastern Oregon and the Willamette Valley, respectively, also have similar memoranda of understanding with ODOT.

“This is going to be fantastic for us,” Carlos Smith, a member of the 11-person tribal council, said Wednesday. “It’ll provide jobs for our construction company (which operates under Warm Springs Ventures, the business arm of the tribes) and for tribal members looking for work on and off the reservation.”

The tribes are now in the process of hiring a TERO director, said Don Sampson, executive director of Warm Springs Ventures. A five-person TERO commission will also be selected to help run the program. The commission will provide policy oversight, work with contractors on TERO hiring practices and serve as an appeals board.

“This is an exercise of the tribes’ sovereign rights,” said Sampson, who hopes to have the Warm Springs TERO plan in effect by the summer construction season. “The ideal situation is that it increases employment opportunities for tribal members.”

On the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, that means preference in bids and projects to companies owned not just by the tribes, but also by any business owned at least 51 percent by Native Americans who are members of a federally recognized tribe. Outside the reservation, within the 60-mile TERO boundary, contractors would be obligated to hire a certain percentage of Native American employees, with the exact number depending on the size of the project.

“Right now, our construction crew isn’t consistently employed,” Smith said. “There’s not always something nearby to work on. With the TERO, not only construction work, but contractors and sub-contractors will have to employ tribal members. Even if it’s not a giant deal, there’s an opportunity for a guy that owns a backhoe or a CAT (construction machine).”

Sampson expects the Warm Springs TERO program to be self-sufficient within two years. To become TERO certified, which lasts for three years, contractors must attend a half-day workshop that typically costs between $450 and $750. Contractors will also pay an upfront TERO fee to the tribes. The Umatilla and Grand Ronde TERO agreements call for fees between 0.5 percent and 2.5 percent of the total bid. The exact fee formula for the Warm Springs TERO agreement with ODOT is still being finalized.

“A lot of contractors look at it as a pain in the neck, but I think it’s a wonderful program,” said Mike Walker, an estimator for Vic Russell Construction in La Pine. Walker used to own his own paving company and did multiple projects involving the Umatilla TERO plan. “The intent is to hire Native Americans and it does a good job of that. … This program gives people a chance at a career they maybe haven’t been exposed to before.”

Once a bid within a TERO boundary has been accepted, contractors meet with the TERO director and submit a list of their “core crew,” permanent and key employees such as foremen or specialized machine operators who are essential to completion of the project. The TERO director and the contractor then negotiate the number of Native Americans to be employed for the job, a figure that depends on the size of the project and available workforce.

“I don’t care what color you are or whether you sit down or stand up to pee, as long as you can do the particular job at hand,” said Elroy Waldron, a general contractor whose Waldron & Sons construction company has done several TERO projects in northeast Oregon. “If this helps someone get into a craft, that’s great.”

The flip side of that, Waldron says, is that a non-Native American laborer a contractor uses on a regular basis might be out of a job for the duration of the TERO project.

“They’ll be put on a list to see if they can come out (and work), but that’s not always the case,” Waldron said.

While TERO plans are specifically designed to help individuals find work, they also help strengthen tribes’ relationships with the state, says ODOT’s Wynette Gentemann.

“These agreements help establish close ties with the sovereign nations,” said Gentemann, manager of the ODOT procurement office and herself a member of the Choctaw Nation. “ODOT listens to the needs of the tribes and the people that make up the tribes. … (The TERO plans) help build trust, which traditionally hasn’t always been there.”

The first TERO laws were enacted in the late 1970s, and now more than 300 federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native villages around the country employ TERO plans.

“This will open a lot of employment opportunities, but it also provides a future for young people that want a construction job or want to start a construction company,” Smith said. “This guarantees there’ll be jobs in the future.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829; .