Trump should require federal contractors to follow the law

Imagine you hired a contractor to fix your house, but they cut corners and cheated their workers. Would you hire them again? The same basic principle underlies federal law requiring federal agencies to do business only with companies who are responsible, who at the very least are law-abiding. After all, it’s just good government practice and plain common sense to ensure that billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars aren’t going to contractors who break our federal laws.

Federal contractors employ 26 million workers, 22 percent of our nation’s workforce. A shocking number of those contractors violate laws that govern their relationship with their workers. In fact, a 2013 Senate investigation led by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) found that 30 percent of the companies that wantonly violated basic labor laws were federal contractors. All told, these 49 companies received approximately $81 billion a year in taxpayer dollars, while tens of thousands of America’s working people were short-changed through stolen wages or dangerous safety violations.

That’s why in 2014 President Obama signed an executive order on fair pay and safe workplaces, requiring prospective federal contractors to report labor law violations to federal contracting officers. The goal was to ensure that companies awarded federal contracts would be compliant with health and safety standards, wage laws and civil rights laws, not to mention better value for taxpayers.

But the executive order never went into effect. President Trump, in one of his first official actions, signed its repeal, citing its “unnecessary and burdensome processes.” So abuses continue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently released a report finding that 66 of the 100 largest federal contractors, who were paid nearly $240 billion in taxpayer dollars in 2015, were known violators of federal labor laws. Good Jobs Nation has found that federal contractors steal up to $2.5 billion in worker wages each year.

One example of abuse has been in the news lately: General Dynamics Information Technology, the largest federal call center contractor in the country. GDIT, including the companies it has acquired, has a long history of labor law violations at its call centers. It has agreed to pay close to $4 million in back wages over the last decade for failing to pay the required wage rate and refusing to pay workers for all hours worked.

GDIT workers, with help from the Communications Workers of America, recently filed a complaint with the Labor Department alleging that GDIT cheated its workers nationwide out of more than $100 million in unpaid wages. The National Labor Relations Board recently issued a complaint against GDIT alleging unfair labor practices, including a finding that GDIT “informed employees that it would be futile” to join a union because their wages would not “increase absent an act of Congress.” In reality, the workers have a legally-protected right to come together to form a union and bargain with their employer for higher pay.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to fight for working families. But his repeal of the executive order on fair pay and safe workplaces is one of the many examples of his administration putting the interests of big businesses like GDIT ahead of real working families. Now, the Trump administration has a second chance.

Even after the repeal of this order, federal agencies still have the responsibility to contract only with “responsible” contractors. The federal government still has the job of enforcing those laws that ensure that every worker in America gets fair pay and a safe workplace. It’s time for the Trump administration to step up and do its job, making sure that workers are paid properly and irresponsible employers are not given federal contracts.

Patricia Smith served as U.S. Solicitor of Labor from 2010 to 2017, capping more than 40 years in public service. She is now a senior counsel focusing on workplace protections at the National Employment Law Project.

Lafe Solomon served as senior labor compliance advisor in the office of the solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor from 2015 to 2016. From 2010 to 2013, he was acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

You can read the original op-ed in The Hill.

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