Housing Complex

St. Elizabeths Protest Highlights Need for Other Kinds of Jobs

You've heard it over and over: Ward 8 has astronomical unemployment. That's particularly hard to stomach when residents see so much construction activity just down the road, at the massive Department of Homeland Security project at St. Elizabeths. As I explained in March, the General Services Administration can't require its contractors to hire any particular number of District residents, like the city does on projects it funds. Construction companies often already have their crews in place, and don't feel the need to hire from the local community without anybody forcing them to do so.

Today, scores of men and women came out to protest Clark's failure to hire them, fueled by data from a Freedom of Information Act Request that LiUNA's United Construction Workers says shows D.C. residents accounted for only 14 percent of total hours worked on the project. The General Services Administration quickly responded that LiUNA didn't analyze certified payrolls from three other contractors on the site, and that the real number is closer to 20 percent.

That's still pretty low. But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who hauls Clark Construction and GSA up to testify on their progress every few months, still seems happy enough with their progress. She sent out a press release saying that 26 percent of workers over the course of the project have been D.C. residents, and that the number currently stands at 36 percent, with 20 percent from Ward 8. "I defy you to find any job in the District of Columbia, construction or non-construction, where you can say 20 percent are from this ward," she said, at a forum the previous night. (The difference in hours worked comes in—apparently—because some trades have to stay longer to take advantage of good weather.)

All the arguing about numbers, though, obscures a larger point: Ward 8 residents shouldn't be looking at construction on big federal projects as their best chance at a job. Although some lead to stable careers that pay well, the lower-level laboring positions are cyclical, leading to long gaps in employment. Within a few years, St. Elizabeths will be all built out, and people will be needed for positions working inside it, many of which require specific skillsets and security clearances—not to mention the other ancillary businesses the complex is supposed to attract.

It's worth noting that unions are in a weird position here, since their members can come from any jurisdiction. But demanding local hiring is one way to strengthen partnerships with District-based organizations, and those groups might as well keep up the pressure on Clark and GSA to give locals as good a crack at their jobs as anyone else.

The longer term focus, however, can't be just big federal development projects. Building capacity in local construction companies to redevelop the rest of Ward 8 is essential, as is starting and run the stores, restaurants, and services that residents say they want. Because St. Elizabeths construction jobs aren't the answer. Even the District's First Source law for hiring on local projects isn't the answer. Construction is a tiny, tiny fraction of the total amount of jobs in the District, and D.C. residents should be prepared for all of them.

  • Drez

    All the arguing about numbers, though, obscures a larger point: Ward 8 residents shouldn't be looking at construction on big federal projects as their best chance at a job. Although some lead to stable careers that pay well, the lower-level laboring positions are cyclical, leading to long gaps in employment
    Agreed. Capacity building is more important. And if people feel the need to focus on construction a better metric for how this project is benefiting DC residents would be How many apprenticeship positions are there, and how many of those are going to DC residents?

  • Hillman

    Wowsa. Someone finally acknowledged the obvious - that harassing the Feds into temporary jobs aren't going to solve all of DC's employment and social ills.

    Thanks, Lydia, for a well-written article.

  • Jason

    I'm all for local labor, but this protest is stupid. And Drez makes a very good point. The focus should be on how many jobs DC residents are competitive for inside this building once it's up. Once again, it's all about our schools.

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  • Drez

    The term "poverty pimp" has been very much in my mind lately.
    It's easy to stomp feet and chant slogans, and lots of people do this and encourage others to do it. It's not so easy (or popular) to enact meaningful change.
    Even 1st Source agreements are of very limited use.
    It is about education and capacity building.

  • Chgobluesguy

    To the policy elite who make these rules, if it ain't lawyering, lobbying, or think tanking, it must be unskilled labor. I have several relatives who are journeymen in the trades. Based on their lifestyles, I bet they bank about $80,000 plus great union benefits. They all have served lengthy apprencticeships. They have trucks, their wives don't work, and they send their kids to the public schools. These are precisely the type of people who DO NOT live in DC. Putting meaningless hiring goals into contracts is a CYA for politicians who can't address affordable housing and vocational education. My cousin who is a union plumber volunteers at schools trying to get kids interested in taking advantage of paid apprenticeships. Unfortunately, like a lot of other opportunities, kids in the District lack the social networks and support system to identify and enroll in these programs. Without adequate training, phony quotas will not make Ward 8 residents into the highly-paid skilled craftsmen envisioned by DC's leaders.

  • michaeliceman

    I agree with all of the commeents.

    Folks in power need to focus less on creating jobs and more on creating job skills in the residents, whether through apprenticeships or re-investment in vocational education (DC used to have one of the best in the nation). I got lawyers, bankers and diplomats living in my neighborhood. Richest guy in the neighborhood is a plumber. The guy with the biggest house is an HVAC technician. Family with 2 kids at St. Johns does drywall and painting. We all call these guys when something goes wrong in our houses. What else do they have in common? All of them graduated from Phelps or Armstrong back in the day. See...in this push to get all kids onto a college track, we ignore the value of vocational education and alternative educational tracks. You have to create jobs from the bottom up sometimes.

  • Hillman

    Lots of very good comments here.

    I've been in a position to hire for construction trades in DC for the past decade or so.

    I try really hard to hire DC locals.

    But I can't count the number of times I've been quoted three or four times the going rate for construction jobs by DC locals.

    Or when giving me the bid they show up a half hour late with alcohol on their breath.

    Or they don't have a license.

    My favorite, though, just for sheer chutzpuh, was the guy that wanted to give me a bid for some tree removal work.

    He showed up half an hour late. I showed him where he could park and told him under no circumstances could he park in the neighbors private space. He told me he'd park where it was most convenient for him.

    Then he proceeded to 'shush' me when he got a personal cell phone call. Literally told me to 'shush'.

    This, my friends, is the state of a lot of contracting in DC.

    On the flip side, I've had a couple of great experiences with DC-born contractors.

    But by and large it's a pretty sad lot out there.

    That's why MD and VA companies get so much of the business.

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