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West Virginia paves the way for women highway workers

This is a story about a man who is doing his job. His name is Jesse Haynes, and his job is equal-employment officer for the West Virginia Department of Highways, the department that came closest during the 1981 construction season to meeting the 6.9 percent female employment goal set by the United States Office of Federal Contract Compliance.

In fact, according to the Southeast Women's Employment Coalition (a group that gave the department an award for compliance), West Virginia exceeded its goal, enforcing the employment of 7.8 percent women by highway contractors. Chris Weiss, who presented the award for the coalition, says the compliance ''boils down to an individual - Jesse Haynes is doing his job.''

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''No, no, no,'' says Mr. Haynes, a retired Army officer. ''The story here is that the contractors are doing their job. The department maintains good relations with them. We talk to them every day and let them know what we expect. And they know that if they don't comply we're going to be out there looking over their shoulder.''

Companies whose contracts exceed $10,000 are expected actively to recruit women and minorities for their jobs, a goal Mr. Haynes says is getting easier to meet.

''I've been here about five years,'' he says, ''and now we no longer have a problem finding women carpenters, masons, teamsters, and the like. We still have trouble finding trained electricians and ironworkers, though,'' he says.

His office would like to see a pool of female talent developed. ''We'd like to see it develop through the unions - preferably through apprenticeship programs in the unions,'' he says.

The Department of Highways, working with the Laborers and Teamsters Unions, has started a 1,000-hour training program for women and minorities in West Virginia which qualifies graduates for membership in the unions. With wages running anywhere from $8 an hour for a beginning laborer to $14 an hour for a carpenter, these programs act as giant steps in female upward mobility.

Once the contractor has hired his crew for each job - 6.9 percent of whom must be women - he is expected to base promotions on merit rather than gender. If he doesn't, Mr. Haynes says in a friendly voice, ''we'll be there doing it for him.''

Asked why other Southeastern states have not come close to meeting this modest goal (the Southeast Women's Employment Coalition has given some of them ''pothole awards''), Mr. Haynes says quickly that he doesn't know. But he adds an explanation that may be the key to West Virginian compliance: ''We take it seriously.''

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