In an effort to spearhead a change in the way construction companies do business in the District, Mayor Vincent C. Gray has launched an ambitious pilot project. This new initiative, called the Workforce Incentive Program (WIP), attempts to directly link more D.C. residents with jobs in the local construction industry.

WIP, slated to begin on June 20, will simultaneously address school infrastructure improvement needs and increase hiring of workers living in economically disadvantaged wards. It is being promoted as a “summer construction jobs program” only for city residents that are 18 years or older. Officials believe with thousands of youth in that age range being denied job opportunities in the District’s regular summer youth employment program, many will take advantage of this project, as well as skilled adults looking for work.

“As everyone is well aware, the unemployment rate in the District is staggering, and in some parts of our city it’s as high as 28 to 30 percent,” said Gray in a press release announcing the plan. “My administration is committed to finding both short-term and long-term solutions to workforce development, job creation, education and training opportunities for our residents.”

WIP will provide incentives to contractors and subcontractors to hire more D.C. residents by paying the general contractor up to 5 percent of its fee for achieving District hiring targets established as part of its guaranteed maximum price for each project. WIP will also pay subcontractors 10 percent of the payroll for D.C. residents on the project. The goal is to increase District resident participation from the existing 22 percent to 35 percent or more.

“Through this pilot program, we are matching construction companies involved with the school modernization construction projects in the various wards with qualified D.C. residents,” said Darrell S. Pressley, Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM) spokesman. 

For the last 10 years, District residents have expressed bafflement at the seemingly “allowed” discriminatory hiring practices of construction companies that did business with the local government. Billions of dollars have poured into the industry for hundreds of construction projects, yet District residents were denied jobs.

For example, Turner Construction, the main contractor for the District’s $250 million
crime-forensics lab, last spring held a job fair, where over 1,500 District residents attended. At one of its monthly community meetings this winter, representatives admitted that the subcontractors only employed six new hires from the thousands of applicants that attended the job fair because those were the only positions that needed to be filled.

“That was a joke and a charade,” said Cardell Shelton, who has led protests against the Council for its failure to stop what he called “Jim Crow” hiring practices in D.C.’s construction industry.

This practice has created widespread frustration among District residents that claim immigrants have displaced locals in these jobs. But there is hope that initiatives such as WIP will help address the issue.

“The current First Source Program contains clawback penalties that have rarely been used because the legally mandated ‘best efforts’ standard is very low hurdle and broadly defined. Councilman Brown is working on a bill that would revamp First Source,” said Drew Hubbard, director of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development for Councilman Michael Brown (I-At Large). “One key to this effort is getting away from the current measure of new hires and applying a measure of actual hours worked, verified by certified payroll submissions.”

The OPEFM believes that since most of the jobs are basically exempt from the requirements of the First Source agreement, WIP will be a more effective method of increasing the participation of District residents in construction projects.

“There’s confidence the new hires will be recruited,” said OPEFM’s Pressley. “If contractors are unable to find candidates to hire in a particular ward, they will then venture out to other wards, again, with the goal of hiring D.C. residents.”

Quentin Ward, a licensed electrical journeyman, attended one of several job fairs on May 21. “At this point, I can’t afford not to apply for as many jobs as I can. Hopefully, this time someone will see the benefit of hiring me,” said Ward.

Olivia Warren, WIP job coordinator, ensured things will be different this time. “There is a very deep commitment on the part of the mayor to provide a foundational structure to ensure citywide residents an opportunity to get hired.”

 

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO