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Amazon wants waiver from local labor requirement connected to tax breaks 

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EDITOR'S NOTE 4.30.21: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story referred to Monroe County's economic development agency by its recently retired brand name, Imagine Monroe. The agency is now and better known by the acronym COMIDA.

Monroe County’s economic development agency has already approved millions of dollars in tax breaks to Amazon for the proposed construction of a warehouse and distribution center in Gates.

Now, according to the county’s director of planning and development, the online retailer has asked for another sort of break — from having to hire only local people to build the facility.

Any time the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, COMIDA,  gives companies tax incentives on construction, it does so on the condition that workers from the region will be hired for the job. Companies can ask to waive the requirement, but they typically have to show that they were unable to find adequate help in the area for their request to be granted.

Ana Liss, the county’s director of planning and development, told COMIDA board members at their latest meeting on April 20 that they will “tentatively will be entertaining a request” from Amazon and Dallas-based real estate developer Trammell Crow Company for at least a partial waiver of the local labor requirement at their next meeting in May.

“If they’re seeking a blanket waiver I’m not signing off on that,” Liss said. “That requires board input, board approval. And of course I’ll be briefing this board once those entities come to me with vetted evidence.”
click to enlarge Construction on an Amazon warehouse and distribution center on Manitou Road in Gates was under way in April 2021. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Construction on an Amazon warehouse and distribution center on Manitou Road in Gates was under way in April 2021.
An Amazon spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny that the company and its developer are seeking a waiver.

“Amazon is a dynamic business and we are constantly exploring new locations,” said spokesperson Jenna Hilzenrath. “We weigh a variety of factors when deciding where to develop future sites to best serve customers, however, we have a policy of not commenting on our future roadmap.”

On Friday, after CITY reported that Amazon was seeking a waiver, the company issued a statement that read:

“Amazon has a variety of projects in various stages across the U.S. and we are proud to support the creation of job opportunities for residents in those areas, even before our operations facilities launch. During the construction process, our developers and general contractors use an open bid process available to any qualified party who shows interest in a project; this includes both non-union and union, local, regional, and national contractors with the relevant experience and expertise. As always, we follow all local and state labor policies and processes."

In recent years, Amazon has been building warehouses and distribution centers across the state, including in Henrietta and Greece.

The company and its developer have said they plan to invest $412 million to build a 2.6 million-square-foot facility on Manitou Road off Route 531 in Gates. In January, COMIDA approved $134.7 million in property, mortgage, and sales tax exemptions for the project. Amazon has said it plans to hire 1,000 people to work at the facility.

Liss said the companies were particularly concerned about finding enough laborers to pour concrete because of the sheer size of that job. She added that the county will be negotiating with Amazon and its developer should they present a case for a waiver.

But news of Amazon’s request got a chilly reception from two COMIDA board members, who bristled at the notion that one of the largest and wealthiest companies in the United States might try to bypass local labor requirements.

“I think we were very transparent,” said board member Jay Popli, the executive vice president of Popli Design Group, an architectural, engineering, and land surveying firm based in Penfield. “You request these benefits, these are the rules. And what they’re saying is, ‘We’ll see about that.’”

It wouldn’t be the first time.
click to enlarge Construction on an Amazon warehouse and distribution center on Manitou Road in Gates was under way in April 2021. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Construction on an Amazon warehouse and distribution center on Manitou Road in Gates was under way in April 2021.
Amazon has a history of requesting and receiving waivers on local labor requirements attached to tax incentives — and some municipalities, desperate for jobs and investment, have gone along.

Last year, the Onondaga County Industrial Development Agency granted a similar request from Amazon and Trammell Crow to forgo using local labor to build a 3.8-million-square-foot warehouse in the Syracuse suburb of Clay. The agency had already granted $70.8 million in tax breaks for the project when the developer sought relief from the local labor requirement, telling agency officials that it was only able to fill 70 percent of the construction jobs with local workers.

The Onondaga County IDA, apparently satisfied that the company did its due diligence, ultimately provided the waiver.

In 2017, Amazon talked officials in Miami-Dade County, Florida, into releasing it from a requirement to pay “responsible wages” to employees at a new fulfillment center. The $92 million facility was on land the company was leasing from the county’s airport.

The town of Montgomery in Orange County in New York last year released the developer of an Amazon warehouse from using local labor to install a fire sprinkler system and to do concrete and metal work.

Now Monroe County officials find themselves in a game of chicken with one of the most powerful and wealthiest companies in the world. The warehouse Amazon wants to put in Gates was originally supposed to be built in Grand Island. The company walked away from the Erie County town following substantial opposition to the project.

As Liss discussed the issue with COMIDA board members, she emphasized that the county will negotiate with Amazon and its developer, but only to an extent. She relayed that County Executive Adam Bello had “made it clear to me that we’re not going to accept anything more generous than what Onondaga County granted, and we’re going to hold them to account.”

Board member Troy Milne, the business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 46, criticized the companies for what he said was their failure to share their construction schedule with COMIDA and the building trades unions. If the unions had that information, he said, they could help the companies find local workers.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, who in the past has been critical of some economic development subsidies handed out by the county, said the onus is on Amazon and its developer to make the case that it can’t find the workers it needs here.

“The bottom line is they’re getting more than $100 million in incentives and they should have to use local labor,” Barnhart said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.
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