The United Auto Workers Are Unionizing Rooftop Solar

Workers at Long Island’s leading rooftop solar installation firm voted to unionize, in a New York first. Then the company furloughed almost half of them.

Julia Rock   ·   January 10, 2024
A man installing a solar panel
Rooftop and community solar has been a bright-spot in New York's otherwise halting energy transition. | Canva Images

As New York falls behind on its goals to build renewable energy, there has been one bright spot: small-scale solar.

New York is the national leader in community solar installation, and it’s ahead of its own schedule to build rooftop solar. But the workers driving that progress face low wages, unpredictable hours, and frequent layoffs. Until last month, the residential rooftop sector was entirely non-union.

On Saturday morning, a couple dozen people with signs and a giant inflatable rat stood on the busy corner of Bethpage that hosts EmPower, the leading Long Island rooftop solar installation firm that furloughed 40 percent of its workforce two weeks ago — just after employees voted to unionize with the United Auto Workers.

“This is a publicly subsidized business,” said Mike DiGuiseppe, the vice president of United Auto Workers Local 259 on Long Island, denouncing EmPower’s failed promise to provide a “just transition” and “jobs of the future.”

EmPower, like other New York rooftop solar firms, benefits from generous federal and state subsidies for installations — part of climate legislation for which the union had advocated. According to DiGiuseppe, “We’ve been going up to Albany and fighting for years for [EmPower] to have this opportunity.”

But the opportunity hasn’t trickled down to the firm’s workers, they say. Installers at Empower described low pay and an obtuse bonus structure that leaves them with unpredictable paychecks for work that is grueling, dangerous, and subject to the ebbs and flows of consumer demand in a nascent industry.

Residential rooftop installers don’t benefit from the protections afforded to workers on larger projects. State law grants prevailing wage protections to renewable energy projects above one megawatt, which doesn’t cover most residential rooftop solar. Those larger projects are often completed by union contractors, since employers have to pay union wages anyway.

Unions could give installers training and access to the better-paying and more secure jobs that are often reserved for electricians and other specialists brought in to finish jobs, solar workforce experts said. They could also provide a powerful constituency invested in the state’s energy transition.

But when EmPower workers announced their intent to unionize, EmPower hired one of the most effective union avoidance firms in the country, National Labor Relations Advocates, to fight the effort.

David Schieren, EmPower’s CEO, said that’s not because he has anything against unions. “We are not anti-union, but rather admire unions,” he told New York Focus in an email.

“They kind of swindle you with this idea of a bonus.”

—Empower Installer

Instead, he said, EmPower retained the firm because “as a small, local company we did not anticipate this happening and did not have experience internally to help navigate the process.”

On December 22, workers voted 29–16 to unionize with the UAW, inspired by the union’s recent contract negotiations at the Big Three auto manufacturers. On December 29, EmPower furloughed 21 workers — some for multiple years, which the union claims is the equivalent of a layoff.

EmPower maintains the timing is just a coincidence. “EmPower Solar recently furloughed staff across the company solely due to a slowdown in business,” Schieren told New York Focus. “The decision to furlough had nothing to do with the UAW or results of the union vote.”

That will ultimately be for the National Labor Relations Board to decide. The UAW has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against EmPower, including for instituting layoffs without consulting the union.

Community and rooftop solar in New York has far outpaced utility-scale renewable energy projects in meeting state climate targets.

New York has over 5,000 megawatts of distributed solar capacity across more than 200,000 projects. The state is on track to meet the state’s statutory goal of installing 6,000 megawatts by 2025 and 10,000 by the end of the decade — “ahead of schedule and under budget,” said Noah Ginsburg, the executive director of the industry group New York Solar Energy Industries Association (NYSEIA).

The industry has been invigorated by generous tax subsidies, loan programs, and cash incentives from the state and federal governments. For residential solar installation, homeowners can get a 25 percent tax credit from New York state and a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government under the Inflation Reduction Act — meaning that more than half of installation costs are publicly funded. Based on where they live, homeowners can also qualify for other incentives including property tax breaks. And the state’s net metering program allows buildings with rooftop solar to sell extra electricity they produce to the grid.

EmPower has installed rooftop solar on more than 5,000 New York homes, according to the firm, and has advocated for favorable state-level policies. Schieren, the CEO, is the chairman of NYSEIA, and EmPower lobbies for policies that favor solar deployment through the Long Island Lobby Coalition, an alliance of local environmental, labor, and business groups. (It is also the “official solar partner” of the New York City Football Club.)

EmPower installers, some of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs, told New York Focus they were motivated to unionize primarily by low pay and a confusing and punitive “bonus” structure. They also said jobs require them to work in all types of weather, from heat waves to rain storms, which can be dangerous when they are standing on the edge of rooftops and carrying heavy equipment up ladders. And they cited smaller frustrations, like being required to drive long distances for jobs in their own cars and having to wait weeks to have fuel costs reimbursed rather than getting company gas cards.

Installers are paid a base hourly wage that starts at $18. For each panel installed, an additional cash bonus is deposited into a pool split between the workers. The system leaves workers like Gregory Morocho, an installer, with a monthly bonus ranging from $300 to $2,500, he said.

Rally with a giant union rat
United Auto Workers Local 259 members rallied outside of EmPower's headquarters on Saturday. | Courtesy of UAW

“They kind of swindle you with this idea of a bonus,” said another installer. “It’s complicated and most installers don’t really have a good sense of the bonus structure. But basically, we get X amount of dollars depending on how well we perform our job. So that puts pressure on the installers to work really fast.” The size of the bonus is based on how quickly and safely crews install the panels, workers said.

While the bonus structure incentivizes speed, the pool also functions as a slush fund for the company to pay for mistakes made on the job, workers told New York Focus. If a wire is left hanging or a panel is broken, EmPower pays for it out of the bonus pool, said Daniel Lozano, an installer who was furloughed in December. In one case, Lozano said, he knocked over a can of spray paint that splashed the homeowner’s fence, and the company deducted $300 from the bonus pool.

Upper-level management determines bonuses with little transparency, installers said. And workers don’t control many of the factors that determine how many panels they can install each month. “We have absolutely no say as to whether we’re going to get a 50 panel house or a 20 panel house,” said one worker.

“We are not anti-union, but rather admire unions.”

—David Schieren, EmPower CEO

During the union campaign, DiGiuseppe and Lozano wrote in an op-ed for the Long Island Business News that the average installer salary was just under $45,000. EmPower shot back, telling state lawmakers in an email that “EmPower’s average pay for field installers and technicians is $66,500, with health and 401k on top of that.”

“That’s when my phone blew up,” DiGiuseppe told New York Focus. He said that workers were outraged that EmPower was “lying” about how much they made. “You can’t just go and say, we’re paying you more than you know.” (EmPower declined to share data to back up its claims about average pay, citing worker privacy.)

In addition to the variable monthly pay, workers said that EmPower operates in a frequent cycle of hiring and layoffs. Rather than spreading out jobs so the work is consistent, “when there’s a sales boom, they want from the moment the sale is made to install done as fast as possible,” one installer said. “That’s what creates these ebbs and flows.”

Asked about the claims of cyclical work, Schieren responded, “while we would love to provide you with a list of extremely proud and happy employees with us for years, including many field technicians, it is more appropriate to do so once the bargaining process is over.”

In New York, larger solar installation projects are increasingly completed with union contractors, according to Ginsburg of the NYSEIA. That’s in part because of legislation passed in 2022 that requires larger renewable projects that receive public subsidies to pay prevailing wage.

“Once a project is required to pay a prevailing wage, it actually ends up being, in many cases, a lower cost to use a union contractor,” Ginsburg told New York Focus.

Prevailing wage requirements don’t make solar projects significantly more expensive, Heatmap noted, since installation labor accounts for only a small slice of costs. “A 50% increase in labor costs would increase total costs by only 3–5%,” one analysis found, and higher wages tend to be offset by increases in productivity.

For commercial rooftop and ground mount projects, developers often carry out project management themselves, then hire a subcontractor for the actual construction.

Residential installs tend to function differently. Prevailing wage law doesn’t apply, and the construction workers tend to be in-house, like at EmPower.

But the job of a “solar installer” is not well defined. The work depends on the contractor and “how they divvy up the job task analysis — like, what this person is going to be responsible for,” said Cynthia Finley, a workforce expert with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, a research and advocacy nonprofit. That division of labor varies widely for solar work and impacts the skills required for a job — and how well it’s paid. “In some workplaces, you need to be an electrician to install solar,” she said. In others, installers do all of the non-electrical work and an electrician is brought in to finish the job.

“I’d say what makes it attractive is that anybody can do it,” said one EmPower installer. “There’s not exams or an apprenticeship, they teach you on the spot how to install. But that leaves a lot of gray area for safety issues, a lot of gray area for people being mistreated on the job site because they’re not performing correctly.” He added that the week-long orientation for new installers doesn’t seem like enough training.

Unions moving into the solar installer workforce could help turn “solar installer” into a career path rather than transitory low-wage work that varies by employer, Finley said.

And the UAW’s entry into solar on Long Island could help reshape the political terrain in an area of declining Democratic support and mounting local opposition to renewable energy development, said Lisa Tyson, a political strategist and longtime director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

“Having the UAW organize around climate issues and represent these workers is a game changer for Long Island,” Tyson said.

Correction: January 10, 2024 — A previous version of this article misstated how much money Daniel Lozano said that EmPower deducted from a bonus pool after he spilled paint on a homeowner’s fence. The figure was $300, not $400.

Julia Rock is a climate and environment reporter for New York Focus. She was previously an investigative reporter at The Lever.
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