One rainy Tuesday night on Capitol Hill, inside the Rayburn House Office Building that was largely vacant due to Congress’ August recess, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), was busy.
The issue is jobs, she said on the eve of her Aug. 22 employment fair.
Earlier her office had released a statement that underscored her impatience with an unemployment rate that, in some parts of the city, is close to 25 percent at a time when the city is teeming with construction fueled by federal funds earmarked to stimulate economic development.
" It is unacceptable for D.C. residents and small businesses to be sitting on the sidelines as federal dollars meant to provide jobs flow to construction projects in their home town," her statement said.
The gathering, which went on until nearly 10 p.m., was an effort by Norton to bring small business owners and would-be workers together with government officials and contractors ’s response to efforts led by anti-joblessness advocate Rev. George Gilbert Jr. and his group, D.C. Jobs or Else, to reduce an unemployment rate that is one of the highest in the nation.
" It is unacceptable for D.C. residents and small businesses to be sitting on the sidelines as federal dollars meant to provide jobs flow to construction projects in their home town."
With construction underway for projects that include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Norton and Gilbert’s goals are clear: Make sure D.C. residents and small business owners share in the restructuring of the city’s skyline.
"We are interested in finding ways to get our residents and small businesses hired, rather than criticism that is not remedy-oriented," she said in her statement earlier that day.
The numbers bear out the concern. While the overall unemployment rate in D.C. was estimated at 8.9 percent at the end of July, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the numbers are more stark in neighborhoods at the city’s southern and eastern edges.
In Ward 5 just north and east of Capitol Hill and stretching toward Hyattsville, Md., the rate is 12 per cent; in Ward 7, the triangle wedge that leads to Upper Marlboro, unemployment is 15 percent and in Ward 8, the far southeast corner of the city, more than 22 percent of the population is jobless.
With billions of federal dollars being doled out for projects inside D.C, many contractors, such as Henry Osborne, a registered District-based certified business enterprise, see these funds as a game changer for local residents looking for jobs, skills, and contracts.
“Without this [federal construction] money we would not be working out here.” Osborne’s firm is among the small pool of D.C. based firms who have landed work on federal construction sites such as the multibillion dollar Department of Homeland Security project in the heart of Ward 8.
For well over a year, residents near the DHS site have complained that they see large numbers of out-of-town workers streaming in and out of the worksite, described by the General Services Administration as the largest federal project in the nation.
Non-District residents have been observed by bused away after a day’s work. This sight is also perplexing to Osborne who says “I don’t know why they can’t find local residents.” When asked whether there is a difference between D.C. and other workers, Osborne states “I don’t see any difference from workers from D.C., Virginia, or West Virginia…I see a lot of people who want jobs, need jobs, and are eager to work if given the opportunity.”
Yet, according to Gilbert at the hearing, when his group organization rounds up 100 unemployed D.C. residents each week and drives them to apply for jobs at projects managed by Clarke Construction-- the O Street Market (on 7th and O Streets, NW) and the City Center Project (the site of the former D.C. Convention Center on 9th and New York Avenue, NW)-- the results are discouraging.
“Not one of the people we brought [to these projects] got called back, let alone hired,” said Gilbert. After about a month of bringing would-be D.C. workers to a trailer on one site set up to accept job applications, Gilbert’s group was blocked from entering and told that some Caucasian job superintendents were “afraid” of the African American men coming to apply for jobs.
Clarke Construction’s Greg Colevas said that his firm is tracking the hiring of D.C. residents and has set goals for even his subcontractors. “During the procurement process [we made] it clear to subcontractors the expectations the hiring D.C. residents. That’s where it starts…then it’s a matter of holding their feet to the fire to make sure they keep their commitments,” commented Colevas.
Norton concluded her hearing by focusing an entire panel, running until nearly 10pm, on the $290 million five-acre African-American museum construction site along Construction Avenue between 14th and 15th streets N.W.
In response to questioning about the local contractors and residents on the site, Derek Ross, acting chief of construction for the Smithsonian, acknowledged the need to do more. “We have had discussions with [our contractors] to talk about outreach to African American firms…because of what this facility means,” said Ross, an African American product of D.C. public schools. While the museum’s contractors have organized events targeting African American firms, Ross thinks the firms can host activities to specifically target D.C. contractors and unemployed workers.
Osborne believes that fairs for D.C. small business and workers should be staffed by site representatives with the power and commitment to make decisions to hire qualified people “on the spot.” “Too often, you go to the outreach meetings and its just placate the community,” Osborne noted.
The fact that both Ross and Mark Cain, CEO of Smoot Construction Company, Clarke’s joint venture partner, on the African American museum site, are both African Americans underscored Congresswoman’s Norton’s expectation that the project will dedicate the resources needed to hire competent D.C. residents. “Its not going to look good [to] build an African Museum without D.C. residents.”
Talib I. Karim is a technology and health lawyer based in Washington, D.C..