St. Elizabeths construction project generates complaints over hiring

Discontent is growing about the hiring practices at a massive local construction project, the building of a new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard on the campus of St. Elizabeths hospital, despite numbers showing that hundreds of D.C. residents are working on the project.

Last week more than 100 people, many of them men who had applied for work on the project, marched to the construction site to protest what they called a lack of job opportunities for city residents.

Marchers pulled on T-shirts saying “D.C. Jobs or Else,” and walked up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE from Matthews Memorial Baptist Church to the gates of the former hospital on March 30, where they chanted and prayed with Donald M. Temple, a civil rights attorney.

Temple said the government’s efforts to improve the economy were not being directed at the poor. “They can stimulate Wall Street, they can stimulate the banks, but they can’t stimulate Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The Coast Guard building, being erected on the hillside overlooking Interstate 295 in Southeast Washington, is the first phase of a $3.4 billion consolidation of the Department of Homeland Security. It is the biggest federal construction project in the country, and Temple said it ought to raise the prospects of poor citizens living nearby in Anacostia, Congress Heights and other neighborhoods where unemployment topped 25 percent in January.

“This isn’t just about the workers — this is about our families, this is about our children, this is about our community,” he said.

According to the General Services Administration, which manages the project, 630 people work on site at St. Elizabeths. Of that number, 233, or 37 percent, live in the city. Among new hires by Clark Construction, the general contractor, the percentage is higher, with 63 of 94 new workers for the Coast Guard project living in the District and 39 of 106 small businesses contracted to work on the project operating in the District.

Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), called the number of D.C. hires on the project “very impressive” and reminded frustrated residents that construction will last six more years. “We will be addressing their issues over time,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen all at once.”

But to the dozens of men and women who gathered for the march, organized by a minority contractors’ group and local labor union, the numbers were little consolation.

Robert Mack, a 53-year-old Anacostia resident, said he first applied for a job as a laborer on the site almost two years ago, when the project was getting underway, and was irked at not receiving a response. “They never let me know one way or the other,” he said.

Mack and others were concerned about the prospects of those with criminal records, particularly after Clark had to revoke access to the site for a few new hires after completing their background checks. The GSA and the Department of Homeland Security are barring the hiring of people who have been convicted of any of six felonies, including murder, rape and assault on police officers. Others cannot be hired if they have been convicted of certain violent felonies within the past decade.

Gray campaigned on a pledge to help create jobs in the city. On Friday, the mayor — three months into his term — withdrew his nominee to run the city’s jobs agency, Rochelle Webb.

Nevertheless, Hoskins said both the GSA and Homeland Security had shown an impressive commitment to help the city identify opportunities for its residents. He said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, with whom he and Gray met March 22, pledged to “fully integrate this opportunity into the community starting with the construction jobs and continuing all the way through with the east campus,” which the District owns and plans to develop. He expected that she would invite city residents to the Coast Guard headquarters when it is complete and keep them informed of job openings.

“I don’t know how we could ask for more openness,” he said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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