As Buttigieg is under fire for train response, data belies his claim White construction workers taking jobs

While Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing intense backlash for his handling of the highly publicized train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, he’s also being scrutinized for his recent claim that construction sites aren’t employing local workers in minority communities and outsourcing to White people.

Buttigieg on Thursday ignored reporters’ questions during his first visit to the site of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment, which spilled toxic chemicals into the environment. But he admitted he waited too long to respond publicly to the incident. He came under fire for letting a week and a half go by before even tweeting about the wreck.

Buttigieg’s response to the train derailment isn’t the only recent incident for which he’s being scrutinized. 

His admission Thursday came 10 days after he seemed to imply there are too many native-born White construction workers and suggested more of these relatively well-paying jobs need to go to minorities.

A train fire is seen from a farm in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP)


“We have heard way too many stories from generations past of infrastructure where you got a neighborhood, often a neighborhood of color, that finally sees the project come to them, but everyone in the hard hats on that project, doing the good-paying jobs, don’t look like they came from anywhere near the neighborhood,” Buttigieg said during the National Association of Counties Conference last week.

Buttigieg added that Americans could help shrink wealth gaps in the country by “tearing down those barriers” on the delivery level. He was lambasted on social media for not mentioning the East Palestine train derailment, with critics questioning his political priorities after he spoke about racial disparities but not transportation safety.

Beyond any criticism about not addressing the derailment, it turns out Buttigieg was wrong about disparities among construction workers, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

The center notes in a new article on its website that immigrants — both legal and illegal — are significantly overrepresented in construction, while U.S.-born, non-Hispanic Whites are underrepresented, citing an analysis of the government’s 2021 American Community Survey.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during the National Association of Counties 2023 Legislative Conference at the Washington Hilton on Feb. 13, 2023.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during the National Association of Counties 2023 Legislative Conference at the Washington Hilton on Feb. 13, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)


In 2021, for example, immigrants — legal and illegal — comprised 29% of all construction workers but only 17% of the total labor force, according to CIS’s analysis. Meanwhile, U.S.-born, non-Hispanic Whites comprised 56% of the total labor force in 2021 but only 50% of construction workers.

The data also showed that foreign-born Hispanics make up 8% of the total labor force and 24% of the construction workforce and that, overall, Hispanics — U.S. and foreign born — make up 37% of construction workers and 18% of the total labor force.

However, U.S.-born Black Americans are underrepresented in construction, the data finds, with native-born African Americans comprising 10% of the total labor force in 2021 but only 5% of construction workers.

Other estimates have put the figure at Black Americans making up 11% of construction workers, Hispanics making up 28% and Whites making up 53%.  

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg takes a question from a reporter at a press briefing at the White House April 9, 2021, in Washington.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg takes a question from a reporter at a press briefing at the White House April 9, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)


More broadly, the overall number of immigrants — legal and illegal — working was up 2 million in the fourth quarter of 2022 compared to the same quarter of 2019, before the COVID pandemic hit, according to a CIS analysis. That analysis was based on the Current Population Survey collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, there were 1.9 million fewer U.S.-born Americans working over the same time period.

Last week was hardly the first time Buttigieg as transportation secretary has brought up the issues of race, ethnicity and alleged inequality in the U.S.

Buttigieg caused a stir in April after he said “there is racism physically built into highways.”

In November, he was asked by journalist April Ryan during a press briefing how he would “deconstruct the racism that was built into our roadways,” and he gave a response.

“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a black neighborhood or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would have been, in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” said Buttigieg.


The Department of Transportation didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

Buttigieg ran unsuccessfully for president as a Democrat in 2020 and has been floated as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2024 if President Biden doesn’t seek re-election. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, recently said he won’t run for an open Senate seat in Michigan next year.

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