Norton: Federal construction projects still skimping on local employment

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Photo - Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (AP file photo)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (AP file photo)
Local,DC,Liz Farmer

More D.C. residents are getting jobs with the multitude of federally-funded construction projects around the city, but leaders say contractors should be doing more to hire locally.

"When you have people who look out on their back porch and watch a billion-dollar industry at work and they can't take part in it, it tears up their hearts," said George Gilbert, leader of the coalition D.C. Jobs or Else, which has staged rallies protesting a lack of D.C. workers at several major projects across the city.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said most projects in the city being funded with stimulus dollars are lagging behind the "benchmark" set by the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters development at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where the portion of District residents employed has leveled off at roughly 20 percent of the work force. The building is scheduled to open next year.

Job fair Thursday
Who: Open to D.C. residents only, bring proof of residency
What: 85 employers, including private employers like Safeway and Lord and Taylor, as well as federal, city and regional governments
Where: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Mt. Vernon Square Metro Station
When: Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"That says to us, that's a quality pool," Norton said of the project by Clark Construction. "It also says to us, that's not a bad showing when you consider the District [population] is 10 percent of the region."

But most contractors are falling far below that standard. According to the latest figures from the General Services Administration, many other stimulus-funded projects in the District are maintaining levels between 4 and 14 percent of local residents in their work force.

Norton held a hearing this week with several contractors on what they were doing to hire more workers in the city. What worked well with the Coast Guard headquarters, she said, was having an "opportunities center" near the site where potential applicants could submit their names and qualifications. More than 7,000 people submitted their names for a project that is currently employing just under 2,000 people.

The center was set up by Clark Construction and run by GSA. Norton said GSA is considering a similar tactic for its downtown projects, including the new GSA headquarters and modernization projects at the FBI headquarters and the Lafayette Building near the White House.

A spokeswoman for GSA did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Norton said the challenge with workers can be managing expectations -- especially in a city that has local hiring requirements for projects that are funded with D.C. taxpayer dollars.

"What do you say to people who are used to that when you come from the federal government and that's verboten?" she said.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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