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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.