D.C. government officials are bracing for a battle against business owners and developers who are challenging a law that requires businesses to hire D.C. residents, authorities said.

D.C. City Council members have long complained that although the District’s First Source Employment Agreement has been on the books since 1984, enforcement bottlenecks and administrative loopholes have kept it from being enforced effectively. Contractors avoided the requirement by bringing in outside workers, city officials said.

As the unemployment rate soared higher than the national average among Blacks, D.C. government officials revised the regulations this spring, triggering more protests from developers who oppose the law, some council members said. Now, those builders and business owners are calling the law unconstitutional and are challenging it in court.

“For years and years, many builders and contractors have benefited from city-funded development, reaping all the rewards without thinking of hiring our residents. D.C. has thousands of qualified individuals ready to enter the workforce today and that is my goal, to put District residents to work,” said Councilman Michael A. Brown, (I-At Large), author of the First Source Amendment Act. “I am very confident in the legality of this legislation and will testify in court if needed.”

The Metropolitan Washington Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (ABC) and several other developers and contractors claim in a lawsuit that the First Source Act imposes “harmful discriminatory requirements” on workers and employers. They want the courts to declare the law unconstitutional and block its enforcement.

The suit also claims that the District’s “employment problem” is not that there are too many residents chasing too few jobs. By some measures, there are over 800,000 jobs in this city of 600,000 people. The “problem” is that the District lags behind its neighbors in educating and training the workforce the construction industry needs, the plaintiffs contend.

“We are very confident that we will prevail,” Eric Jones, associate director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Washington Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.

But supporters of the law are angry about the challenge.

“How dare they sue the same city that has allowed their companies for decades to profit off of D.C. tax dollars?” said Rev. George Gilbert, president of D.C. Jobs or Else, which participated in a rally for “jobs and justice” on June 14 on the front steps of the Wilson Building. “Over the years, these companies have made millions and now refuse to give D.C. residents an opportunity to make an honest living. If we aren’t good enough to work for them, they aren’t good enough to accept anymore D.C. contracts.”

According to a statement from Brown’s office, the measure requires that 51 percent of new hires on projects receiving government assistance between $300,000 and $5 million must be D.C. residents. It applies enhanced industry-specific First Source hiring and reporting requirements by total hours worked on projects receiving $5 million or more in government assistance.

The agreement holds true for construction-related projects and projects and services with no connection to building. It also strengthens monitoring and compliance by updating reporting requirements, includes a provision allowing for pro-rated fines for those failing to reach specific hiring requirements and provides the mayor with debarment authority for repeat violators, the statement said.

It also establishes a “workforce intermediary pilot program” to match job seekers to businesses with openings, which has proven successful in other jurisdictions, officials said.

D.C. resident and construction professional Ivan Taylor, 31, supports the law and hopes it will help him find a job. He believes the law will help guarantee that White-owned companies maintain diverse employee ranks in building.

“I am ready and willing to work a fulltime job,” he said. “All I need is the same opportunity given others.”

Bruce Tucker, 35, of D.C., said he has been unemployed for three years despite frequently searching for work.

“I’m not just sitting around waiting for a job to drop in my lap. I’m going out looking for work,” he said. “You see construction in every ward. But most companies don’t want to hire Black workers and are allowed to get away with it. Something bold must be done to stop this.”

A second protest was scheduled July 11 at the site of the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall. Construction workers said they fear the museum will be built almost solely with non Black hands.

“This lawsuit is appalling and reveals the arrogance of these contractors. It’s as if we are allowing them to roll back all the strides we made in the past to stop discriminating against our people,” said the Rev. Patrick Walker, president of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference. “Thousands of District residents looking for work don’t want handouts. They want opportunities.”
 

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO