Almost half the public works paychecks aimed at relieving unemployment in the District of Columbia are going to non-District residents, according to payroll records that contractors are required to supply the city.
D.C. officials, dissatisfied with that ratio, are studying a proposal that would require building contractors to offer at least 60 to 65 per cent of their District public works jobs to workers who live in the city.
Under the federal public works program, the Commerce Department grants or denies the public works money to a given jurisdiction primarily on the basis of its unemployment statistics. Except for Prince George's County, Washington-area jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland have not shown enough unemployment to get any of the money.
Yet federal regulations do not provide specifically for the hiring either of workers who are unemployed, or those who live in a given project area, except in special cases. Officials said that would make it difficult for D.C. to funnel more public works money into the hands of D.C. residents.
Spokesmen for the construction industry say, furthermore, that such a requirement would be difficult to fulfill in any case, given the transient nature of construction work force and of the work itself. Moreover, they say, contractors tend to have their own pools of workers, and those who win the contracts (on the basis of a low bid) are often based outside the District.
The District has been allocated $40 million - the minimum for a state regardless of its unemployment figures - under two successive rounds of public works appropriations which total $6 billion nationally.
The program has prompted a lot of grumbling since beginning. Congress authorized it last year over President Ford's veto, and added money to it this year as part of President Carter's economic stimulus package.Its avowed purpose is to provide jobs while enabling communities to build needed facilities they otherwise couldn't afford.
Various critics have charged that the program is a too slow indirect method of creating jobs; that it doesn't sufficiently benefit young people, minorities or women, or that money allocations have been misguided and politically motivated. And spokesmen for construction workers, whose industry is pilagued with particularly high unemployment, and whose workers are intended as prime beneficiaries of the program, complain that the money is not nearly enough.
The Commerce Department's economic development administration, which administers the program, says the first studies on its impact won't be completed for two or three years.
In the District, about 130 workers out of a projected 500 are at work on seven projects funded with an initial $10 million. Work on another $30 million in projects is scheduled to start in November.
The District unemployment rate reported to Commerce was 8.9 per cent, or a total of 29,430 persons out of work. Estimates of the number of unemployed construction workers vary, but experts agree there are at least several thousand in D.C. The public works jobs "won't make a dent," said one local construction trade union spokesman.
The projects which got under way in April include expansion of the downtown Street for People project, several parks, rehabilitation of 550 public housing units and street improvement in Anacostia and roofing and other work on the Eastern Market in southwest Washington. The project sites are marked with signs that say: Jobs for Your Community.
The hiring proposal under consideration by District officials would allow a contractor 35 or 40 per cent leeway in who he hires for supervisory, specially skilled and regular pool jobs. But it would require him to give District residents preference on the rest or, if no qualified resident could be found, get a waiver from the city.
Once the city corporation counsel has decided whether the proposal is legal, various city agencies involved in the construction program will have a chance to discuss and approve it or not, according to Terry Peel, capital improvements director in the budget office, which administers the program for the city. The resulting requirements, if any, will be included in future bid and contract documents.
Robert Roberts, economic development administration representative for Maryland, Delaware and the District, said, "I know of no other jurisdiction making the kind of effort the District is making to see that its residents get these jobs."
EDA officials pointed out that Washington's status is unique, in that it is a city being treated as a state, and has therefore been alloted more money than it otherwise would have gotten. Baltimore, a city of comparable size, whose unemployment rate and total number of unemployed are both higher than the District, is getting just over $25 million, compared to the District's $40 million.
Jones and Artis, a minority construction firm in the District's northeast section, has one of the better records in hiring District residents to work on public works projects - around 70 per cent.
Carl Jones, president of the company and former chairman of the board of the Minority Contractors Association, said that as long as public works contracts are awarded on the basis of the lowest bid, it will be difficult to get the jobs to "the hard-core people" in the city.
He added that District contractors tend to be smaller than their competitors from the suburbs and therefore cannot afford to bid on some of the larger projects. (The District does require that 25 per cent of the public works business go to minority firms or suppliers.)
"The (public works) program," Jones said, "is not well thought out."