Builders sue D.C. and claim 'First Source' laws kill jobs

Local,DC,Harry Jaffe
The Rev. Stephen Tucker is no stranger to the ills and impacts of unemployment.

"If a man cannot find a job," he tells me, "it can damage his soul."

For more than a decade, Tucker has been battling to save souls and find jobs at New Covenant Baptist Church on Park Road Northwest, just east of Georgia Avenue. His church houses the Jobs Coalition and the Jobs Partnership of Greater Washington.

The reverend's specialty: finding work for returning citizens, the politically correct term for ex-cons.

"They come to us with more challenges, heavier burdens," he says. "But many are hard workers who just want to make a decent, honest wage."

So it surprised me to hear Tucker take whacks at the District's "First Source" laws and regulations. One would think Tucker would be very high on laws that require construction companies to give preference to District residents, at jobs that might be the kind of entry-level work that could be perfect for returning citizens.

"First of all," he says, "the days when builders hired laborers to haul lumber are in the past. Most of that work is done by machines now. And most construction jobs require highly skilled workers. Most of my people need training, then jobs."

"Besides," he says, "the First Source laws could kill jobs rather than help people get work."

That's one of the points a group of builders and construction workers made in a lawsuit filed this week in federal court to strike down amendments to the District's First Source law. The original law, passed in 1984, sets up a registry of District residents looking for work. It requires construction companies whose projects are getting public funds to look first to hire D.C. residents and sets goals for the number of residents on the job.

I can see why politicians would love a law that aims to reduce unemployment in D.C. And I can see why it's so easy to target builders. Construction cranes are once again hovering all over town, and workers with hard hats seem so apparent and numerous.

But they are not numerous, compared to the rest of the workforce. According to a study by the George Mason University School of Public Policy, construction jobs represent fewer that 2 percent of jobs in D.C. By far, the most are in government, professional services, legal services, hospitality and publishing.

So it seems misguided for D.C. politicians to turn the screws on the builders. The city council amended the First Source laws in February to require builders to hire city residents at specific percentages for specific job classifications. It also added financial penalties for not meeting the numbers. The city can debar builders, which can kill a company. The bill also gives the mayor way too much discretion in setting and easing goals.

Builders don't make easy victims, but in this case, they are getting hammered, so to speak. Their lawsuit claims the new law violates their constitutional rights, among them the Commerce Clause and Equal Protection Clause.

"Of course," the suit states, "the Act does not create jobs and never could."

Tucker would agree.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. He can be contacted at

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