labor Shifting America to Solar Power Is a Grueling, Low-Paid Job
Thomas Shade got his first job in a solar field at age 41. "I fell in love with it. I left a job where I didn't feel like a human," Shade told Motherboard. At 16, Shade worked in a cotton mill dyeing fabrics to support a newborn son. He then passed through a series of fiberglass factories. He spent a decade on the open road as a long haul trucker. In 2011, he was sick of working the graveyard shift in the oven room of a machine generator plant, so when a friend called him and said a temp firm was hiring laborers to install utility-scale solar power near his hometown in rural western North Carolina, Shade thought to himself “I wouldn’t mind doing that as a side gig.” Soon he had quit his other jobs to work full time in the solar fields.
"Outside on the solar farm, I felt more free,” he said. “You didn't feel like you was trapped like you were inside of a plant.”
When the project ended, a few months later, Shade signed up with PeopleReady, the national temp labor agency, to work on another utility-scale solar farm two hours away in Rockingham, North Carolina. Since then, Shade has lived on the road chasing solar projects, from Texas to Virginia to South Carolina to Nevada to Florida to Maryland to Georgia. "It's a hard life to live," said Shade. "You're always away from friends and family. Sometimes you don't know anybody."
Temp agencies are as common in the solar industry as they are in construction. Many workers are needed to install a solar field, but much fewer are needed once it's up and running. Besides PeopleReady, there's companies like WorkRise, 360 Industrial Services, Aerotek, and Tradesmen. Shade has worked for lots of different temp companies.
For each project, Shade has had to negotiate with a recruiter on the phone over his hourly wages and a daily housing stipend, known as a per diem. In the solar industry, it's common to have two workers doing the same job for vastly different pay and living stipends, multiple solar workers and labor organizers told Motherboard. Nico Ries, an organizer at Green Workers Alliance who has engaged with hundreds of renewable energy workers, said getting paid a higher wage than other workers with the same experience often “boils down to nepotism.” “Workers often refer to it as the good ol’ boy system,” they said. Frequently, local hires and other newcomers to the industry who might commute an hour or two to get to a worksite do not receive per diem stipends.
Shade said he’s been paid anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour to operate heavy equipment, but has had no luck finding a full-time job in the industry with benefits.
Before Shade met his fiancé on a solar farm in 2017, he used to pile into motel rooms with other workers on the same projects in order to save money. They would cook pork chops and steaks on portable flat iron stoves in their motel room after 12-hour days in the fields, six or seven days a week. "They don’t want to pay you enough for your room and for you to eat for the week," Shade said. "So you got two guys in beds and a guy sleeping on the floor, one guy on the couch or a chair."
An itinerant low-wage workforce that chases solar installation projects from state to state for meager wages has proliferated around the country as the U.S. increasingly transitions to green energy. People down on their luck uproot their lives and travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to solar panel installation projects in the remotest parts of the country. Many of these projects are utility-scale, meaning they provide energy to utility companies, who then use it to power the grid. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of workers in the solar industry more than doubled from 93,000 to 231,000 people, according to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census report. In 2019, solar panel installer was the third fastest growing job in the United States. But unlike the unionized oil and coal workers in company towns of decades past, the majority of today’s solar farm installers are poor, receive minimal benefits, and are always on the move to the next project because solar fields require little maintenance once they’re set up. Only 10 percent of solar workers are unionized, according to the census report. Workers on solar projects are often employed by temp agencies or subcontractors. And while the workforce is diverse—Black, white, Latinx, women, men, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated—the unifying trait of this workforce is overwhelming sense of financial desperation. As the New York Times noted, the current state of the solar industry throughout much of the country resembles Amazon warehouse work and the gig economy with “grueling work schedules, few unions, middling wages and limited benefits.”
"Solar companies like to think of themselves as not part of the construction industry and better because they’re fulfilling a renewable energy mission to address climate change," said Carol Zabin, the director of UC Berkeley’s green economy program. "But they can be just as bad employers. There’s a fair amount of the most egregious violations of basic protections."
A GROUP OF SOLAR WORKERS GATHER OUTSIDE A MOTEL IN TYLER, TEXAS AFTER A LONG DAY'S WORK (NICO RIES)
In recent years, progressive Democrats have unveiled sweeping plans to create millions of union jobs in green energy industries to rebuild the middle class. Most ambitiously, in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal, which failed to pass the Senate, envisioned a revamped version of FDR’s New Deal that called on the federal government to eliminate its reliance on the fossil fuel industry by subsidizing millions of union jobs in clean energy. In 2020, President Biden campaigned on the promise to create 10 million middle class clean economy jobs in the United States. On June 6, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to expand clean energy creation and create good-paying jobs in solar and other clean energy industries. One of the pillars of Biden’s new plan is to support “a diverse solar workforce with good-paying jobs, including pathways to stable careers with the free and fair choice to join a union.” The administration has not released numbers on how many jobs will be created.
"If you work for a temp agency in solar, excuse my language, but I'm being truthful, you're shit out of luck.”
Still, the Green New Deal languished in a divided Congress, and major gains for renewable energy jobs were not included in Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Such provisions could make it into the reconciliation bill that is currently held up in talks between West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and New York senator Chuck Schumer. But so far, specific details of that bill have not been released. This raises an important problem: The United States desperately needs to shift to greener energy. But for now, in most of the country, the workers building America’s solar farms and facilitating the transition to clean energy are struggling to survive.
Motherboard spoke to six solar farm workers about how they ended up in the industry, their working conditions, and their struggles to make a living as conditions in the industry have deteriorated in recent years in a race to the bottom among contractors competing to offer the lowest bids on solar projects. Workers described grueling six and seven-day workweeks, cramped living conditions, rampant wage theft, and minimal training on dangerous projects.
“Conditions have gotten worse in solar over the last decade but even more so in the last two years,” said Ries, the organizer at Green Workers Alliance. “In the last two years, things have rapidly declined regarding pay, per diem, safety and nepotism.”
A SOLAR FIELD IN ALABAMA (GREEN WORKERS ALLIANCE)
"This feels like one of the last few jobs from the Wild West," Miguel, a heavy equipment operator originally from Mexico told me. Since 2013, Miguel has worked on solar installation projects for temp agencies in 17 states. "Plenty of times, I haven’t been paid on time. It has happened at every temp agency. Usually, I can tell because there's an entire day missing from my paychecks. I have to bring it to their attention, and then they correct it." Motherboard granted Miguel anonymity because he feared retaliation from his employer.
For workers in the solar industry who live paycheck to paycheck, not getting paid on time can create a cascade of problems: overdraft fees from banks, days without food, no money for lodging or gas, and living hundreds of miles away from home in the middle of nowhere.
“If I don’t have money, I'll sleep in the car or a tent until I get enough money for the hotel."
In the solar industry, workers regularly pull 10-to-14 hour days in the fields, six to seven days a week, because contractors are under pressure from developers to meet deadlines. Miguel described not knowing what the town in Indiana he lived in for six months looked like in daylight because he had not had a day off for weeks. "You wake up and go to work and it’s dark. You go back to your room after work and it’s dark,” he said. Two solar installers said some of their colleagues used meth to get through grueling periods where they rarely had days off.
Shade received his first paycheck almost two weeks late while working on a solar farm project in Fallon, Nevada in 2021. "I was almost going to leave,” he said. “If I'm giving you an honest day’s work, I want an honest day’s pay." He never puts his credit card on file with hotels when he's working on a long term solar project, because hotels will double charge, or charge before payday, triggering a $35 overdraft fee from his bank. "If you work for a temp agency in solar, excuse my language, but I'm being truthful, you're shit out of luck," Shade said.
At the end of the day, workers typically pile into motel rooms, rental homes, campers, and RVs. Those without any savings sleep in their cars until they can pay to split a hotel; some borrow money from their families and friends for gas to get across the country. At many sites, it is common to meet nomadic families with multiple generations working side-by-side on projects. Shade travels everywhere with his fiancé.
Ben, a musician-turned itinerant solar panel installer from Richmond, Virginia who has worked in the industry for six years, told Motherboard he currently lives in a camper trailer but has also spent many nights in more precarious sleeping arrangements. "I slept in a tent for four months on a site in Tennessee,” he said, describing his first job on a solar installation project. “If I don’t have money, I'll sleep in the car or a tent until I get enough money for the hotel." Ben asked to be identified with a pseudonym because he feared retaliation from his employer.
James Clyde Felty, another solar farm laborer, got his start in the industry in 2015 when he stumbled upon a Facebook ad for a solar installer job that paid $16 an hour near his hometown, Mountain Home, Idaho.
Felty, who has a speech impediment (and asked to communicate with me over text message), says he was harassed and bullied by the foreman who expected him to complete quotas that on panel installation he says were impossible for him to make without training. "No one wanted to work with me or take the time to help me understand," Felty said.
Since then, Felty has driven his Jeep Renegade to Utah, Oregon, and Wyoming—once borrowing $1,200 from a family member to tide him over until his first paycheck hit his account. His most recent pay on a solar project was $18 an hour with a $65 per diem stipend. It’s an improvement, he says, both in terms of pay and working conditions to the $19 an hour he makes packaging cheese on an assembly line at a factory in Mountain Home.
But sometimes temp agency recruiters renege on promised wages, benefits, or job offers altogether, and mislead workers about how long their labor will be needed on projects. In 2017, he received a work offer on a solar field, quit his job in sanitation, drove to a new project in Boise, only to arrive at the worksite and receive a phone call from a representative in a faraway office telling him he was no longer needed. Felty was never reimbursed for his travel expenses. Part of the problem, he said, is there's no contract with temp agencies until a worker shows up to the site for a drug test.
Being away from home is hard too. The last time Felty, who is 35, left home for a solar project, the mother of his four-year-old daughter overdosed on opioids and he and the mother lost custody of her. But he couldn't go home without losing his job, and his manager convinced him to "stick it out."
"My mental health is awful," Felty said. "My daughter means everything to me, and her mom has a drug addiction. This last time around it caught up to her and my daughter was taken from both of us.” In recent months, Felty has been back working at the cheese factory in Mountain Home in order to keep his daughter out of the foster care system.
Many of the workers building today's solar farms—rural, poor, and without college degrees—end up on solar farms by a combination of chance and geography. A general contractor looking for labor for a solar project will advertise around the country, but also look to fill roles locally to keep the community happy. Workers start in their hometown and then get swept up in the industry for years.
JAMES CLYDE FELTY AND HIS DAUGHTER (JAMES CLYDE FELTY)
Facebook groups for solar workers with tens of thousands of have become a popular meeting point for workers and recruiters. "American Solar Farms” has 16,000 members, and "Solar Jobs USA," has 18,000 members. Each day, recruiters post dozens of ads for projects from coast to coast. A job listing posted on June 3 for solar installers for a project in Lexington, Kentucky offered workers $18 to $22 an hour with no per diem stipend, for example. People also post memes, look for potential friends or housing in their area, and voice their grievances about working in extreme temperatures.
Multiple solar laborers who've worked on solar projects at the large temp agencies told Motherboard it has become increasingly common for agencies not to offer a "per diem" paycheck to newer hires, while others only receive $25 or $50 a day—not nearly enough to cover the cost of food, gas, and a night at a motel even in a rural area. "A lot of temp companies, they don’t want to pay you 'per diem' or they want to pay you just a little bit, like $25 a day," said Shade.
"Everyday someone leaves work because they are dizzy and exhausted. It has been extremely hot outside and we have no access to shade tents, umbrellas, or any place to get out of the sun and cool off."
Some organizers and workers told Motherboard the conditions in the solar industry have deteriorated in recent years, as temp agencies and contractors compete to have the bids on projects. Paid sick days and paid time off have become virtually unheard of. People work through injuries, colds, and flus rather than take a day off and forgo pay, or risk being fired. Five solar and wind workers told Motherboard that they never take sick days and cannot afford the monthly cost of health insurance. Two workers told Motherboard that PeopleReady used to offer sick days paid out at the end of year, but has discontinued the benefit. "At the end of year, we'd cash our sick days in," Shade said. “Now there’s none of that.”
A spokesperson for PeopleReady said that the company’s paid time off policies “vary by state and job site and always follow state specific requirements.”
They added the company has a “comprehensive safety approach at solar sites to guard against heat related safety issues,” including rest breaks and access to water. They said that starting pay for solar projects is “well above minimum wage” and “varies widely by position and skill requirements.”
Ben, the solar worker from Virginia, said that he’d been offered sick days on some projects, but never took them because it meant jeopardizing his employment. “The temp agency may say you have sick days, but if you take a day, and the contractor wants to fire you, they can fire you.”
Most temp workers also don't receive compensation for the cost of gas and lodging getting to and from a worksite, and any accidents that occur along the way, according to five solar workers and a recruiter. The result is a calculated risk on the part of the worker that everything will go smoothly. If there's one lesson he's learned about the green industry, Shade says it's "learn to manage your money because the temp agencies might not pay you."
"I worked with people who don’t get paychecks for two to three months, but they keep working because if they quit they might never get their money," Shade said.
Long hours are compounded by exposure to the elements, including extreme heat, cold, flooding, and wildlife. Workers sent Motherboard photos of alligators and snakes in the solar fields. Two solar workers described worksites that didn't provide water and said they witnessed their coworkers faint from heat exhaustion.
"The week of June 7th - June 11th 2021 I witnessed several co-workers fall... from heat exhaustion and lack of water," a laborer at the Big Horn Solar 1, a utility-scale solar farm installation project, ongoing in Pueblo, Colorado said in a testimony submitted to the Colorado Public Utility Commission. "Everyday someone leaves work because they are dizzy and exhausted. It has been extremely hot outside and we have no access to shade tents, umbrellas, or any place to get out of the sun and cool off." LiUNA, the union, which interviewed workers on the site, estimates that laborers on the project were paid $16 an hour, and said they’re unionized laborers on solar projects in nearby Comanche, Colorado earn about $21 an hour with healthcare benefits.
To understand why working conditions have become so dire in parts of the solar industry, it is helpful to understand the structure of a solar installation project, where the developer always has the most leverage. The developer typically selects the utility company and the parts manufacturer, as well as a general contractor that bids on the project and supplies the labor. The general contractor is then responsible for all aspects of building the solar farm.
But as has been common in the construction industry for decades, general contractors have the option to hire in-house labor, but many contractors do not hire directly, instead they bring on subcontractors for different aspects of the project. Then rather than hire their own labor, these subcontractors will hire temp agencies to staff low-wage positions, such as solar panel installers and equipment operators.
Beholden to investors to keep costs low, using this many layers of contracting makes it easy for developers to expand and contract their workforce as needed and skirt blame and liability for injuries and dangerous working conditions on the site, experts say. It creates a high turnover system, preventing workers from organizing to demand higher pay, sick days, and health insurance. Utility companies can also distance themselves from poor working conditions in this way. When a temp agency pays workers late or a worker collapses from heat stroke, the general contractor and utility company can point their fingers at the temp agency.
"The more subcontracting, the worse conditions," said Zabin, the director of UC Berkeley’s green economy program. "It’s a cost reducer. It’s often a quality reducer and it's certainly an income reducer for workers.”
Organizers say conditions in the solar industry are the worst in states with low union density. Because health insurance plans at temp agencies and contractors are so expensive, “a lot of people sign up for Medicaid in their home state,” said Ries, the organizer with Green Workers Alliance, a group that pushes for improved working conditions in the wind and solar industries.
"My opinion is a union could change a lot of things. I'm open-minded to try anything that would benefit me, because it can’t be no worse."
Many temp workers say the key to better pay and working conditions is a permanent rather than temp position with a contractor. But solar workers at temp agencies who said that they've tried to get direct hire jobs with general contractors either had no luck or had to wait for years until they met the right person who was willing to give them a job.
Jamie Johnson, a recruiter on utility-scale wind and solar projects, said that it's more difficult to recruit qualified workers from temp agencies for solar projects because they lack required credentials, such as OSHA 10-hour certifications.
Even when temp workers have been trained, the credentials don't always transfer to workers' resumes, she said, because the training is assigned to the project and not the worker. "Some workers are like 'I sat through a class but I don’t have a physical certificate for it.’ It’s very frustrating,” she said.
Johnson said that for subcontractors the goal is to get every project completed as quickly as possible to qualify for tax credits. Offering “on-the-job training and credentials” to workers, she says, is “an afterthought.”
Many experts, advocates and politicians agree that the key to improving the solar industry is unions. But the national landscape for solar jobs has remained largely free from union labor. According to the Solar Census, only one in 10 solar jobs were unionized in 2020. Some unions such as the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have made in-roads in solar. In California, one of the few states where the industry is heavily unionized, laborers on solar projects can earn more than $40 an hour and receive pensions. Unions have also helped pass legislation in Illinois, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and Washington that has forced contractors to pay the prevailing wage, or rates set by unions, and agree to project labor agreements, or standards negotiated between a union and the contractor.
“We’ve been working on projects in California for over 10 years,” said Steve Schwartz, the director of organizing at LiUNA. “Things started out non-union in California, but fought and won a lot of the work and made it a higher road job. We have union members working on solar projects from coast to coast. We’ve engaged workers directly at a whole variety of temp agencies and some directly working for contractors.”
Ries, the organizer, told Motherboard that the Green Workers Alliance, a national organizing group, has largely focused its clean energy workers on the South and Southeast because their working conditions are the worst in the country. Over the past year, they have connected with hundreds of these workers in Facebook groups and during listening tours in Texas and Virginia. GWA has helped some win back lost wages and advocate for workers being mistreated by temp agencies and other employers.
This year, GWA launched a petition targeting three major utility companies in the south, Dominion, Duke, and AEP Renewables. “The members of the Green Workers Alliance are on the front lines of the clean energy revolution, building utility-scale wind and solar projects,” it said. “It’s time to demand that utilities companies like AEP, Duke, Dominion and Duke move to 80% renewable energy by 2030.”
Shade, the solar panel temp worker from North Carolina, says that the industry will only improve if workers can get directly hired by solar companies that offer decent wages and benefits, and invest in training their workforce. He has worked with unionized workers before, and believes a union would help achieve these things.
"My opinion is a union could change a lot of things," he said. "But this ain't California. It’s ingrained in people that the union ain't good for business. I'm open-minded to try anything that would benefit me, because it can’t be no worse."