NYS solar work: Good for climate, but are they good jobs?

New York state solar construction workers – whose numbers are expected to grow rapidly to meet climate goals – are transient, may not receive benefits and are subject to racial disparities in pay, finds a new report from the ILR School’s Climate Jobs Institute (CJI).

Released April 26, “Exploring the Conditions of the New York Solar Workforce,” funded by the New York State Department of Labor, surveyed more than 260 solar installation and maintenance workers. The exploratory study is the first to focus on workers’ experiences, seeking to bridge gaps in government and industry data that relies on surveys of solar employers.

Cornell impacting New York State

The authors identified significant issues that they said warrant further study as the state accelerates its buildout of solar infrastructure. They also found a prevalence of paying workers per panel installed, a practice that could incentivize unsafe conditions in the pursuit of productivity; and that more than half of respondents considered stimulant use a problem on New York solar work sites.

“It is essential to make sure that these jobs are not the kind of low-wage, low-quality employment that can exacerbate inequality,” said Avalon Hoek Spaans, assistant director of research at CJI. “Workers’ perspectives are integral to the creation of public policy and programs that protect and uplift the working class of both New York state and the country, and will help ensure that the climate transition is just and equitable.”

Solar installations in New York increased by more than 2,000% over the past decade, but at the end of 2023 the state’s capacity (less than 6 gigawatts) was one-tenth of its projected need by 2050, according to the report. The projected need nationally is 1,118 gigawatts.

“With solar installations’ critical growth in New York, and the United States as a whole, comes the question: Will these construction projects create the high-quality jobs with family-sustaining wages American communities need?” the report asks.

Estimates of the number of New York solar construction workers ranged from 11,500 in 2022 to more than 14,500 in 2023, according to industry and government reports. But accurate counts are difficult, according to CJI, because those reports may include multiple types of employees – also including sales and services, for example – and may double-count people who worked for more than one employer.

Among the workers CJI surveyed – almost exclusively nonunion, full-time workers directly employed by solar companies between December 2021 and September 2023 – more than 40% had at least two solar employers, and nearly a quarter worked for three or four. About two-thirds relocated to New York for solar jobs, mostly with large national companies, and more than 70 said they lived in one of 23 other states, including 53 from as far as California.

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • Nearly 60% of the workers surveyed reported that they did not receive benefits. Black and Hispanic workers were more likely than white workers to report not receiving benefits.
  • Over 30% of respondents said they were paid per panel installed, rather than as hourly or annual employees.
  • Installation workers for utility-scale solar projects were the least likely to be paid an annual salary and less likely to report longer tenures with their main employer.
  • White workers paid an annual salary made nearly twice the median rate of their Black and Hispanic counterparts. Black workers were more likely to report receiving payment in cash compared to other workers.
  • Black workers were most likely to indicate that they had experienced wage theft while working on a New York state solar project, but workers of color were least likely to formally report wage theft.

The findings were unveiled April 26 in New York City during an event featuring a panel of New York solar workers; remarks from New York State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-13th District) and Assemblymember Harry Bronson (D-138th District), both labor committee chairs; and from ILR experts and the study’s lead authors, Hoek Spaans and Jillian Morley, research support specialist at CJI.

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Kaitlyn Serrao