Congress must deliver on bipartisan infrastructure promises to workers with these two steps

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Greg Nash

Congress recently enacted the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) — the largest infrastructure investment the United States has seen in decades. The law will create hundreds of thousands of jobs rebuilding crumbling roads and public transportation systems; supporting advanced energy technologies and clean water infrastructure; closing the digital divide; and modernizing the electric grid. Longstanding laws, new provisions in the IIJA and recent actions by the Biden administration have set standards that these jobs must uphold, such as to pay market wages and prevent discrimination.  

But whether these jobs are good jobs — which are currently in short supply — depends on these standards being enforced and requires further action by Congress and the White House. 

Much work now falls to the Biden administration to implement the IIJA and distribute its funds, and there are many steps they must take to uphold existing workplace requirements; modernize contract work standards for the 21st century; as well as partner with cities, states and worker organizations to encourage best practices. However, to enable the Biden administration to do its job, Congress should take two critical actions to ensure that the government lives up to its commitment that these federally supported jobs pay decent wages; are safe; support workers’ voice on the job; and increase access for women, workers of color, disabled workers and LGBTQIA+ workers.

First, Congress must increase critical funding to government enforcement agencies that ensure corporations receiving federal funds live up to their obligations, as is included in the House-passed Build Back Better Act bill. Second, the Senate should confirm David Weil, Ph.D., an expert on how governments can leverage limited resources to improve compliance across the private sector and President Biden’s nominee to lead the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the agency charged with enforcing wage protection laws.

Federal policymakers have long held that corporations receiving federal support should be model employers that provide decent jobs. The overwhelming majority of IIJA funds are protected by the Davis-Bacon Act — a 90-year-old law that requires corporations receiving infrastructure funds to pay workers market wages and benefits. Similarly, the government conducts enhanced oversight of federal contractors to prevent workplace discrimination, and recent actions by the Biden administration include creating a Good Jobs Initiative to provide information and resources to improve job quality across the private sector; raising the contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour; and enhancing cooperation between the government agencies to protect workers that exercise their labor rights from illegal retaliation. 

But these protections only make a difference to working people if they are enforced — and the federal agencies charged with doing so are woefully understaffed and under-resourced. For example, according to a Government Accountability Office report, the federal government employed just 760 wage theft investigators in 2020 — fewer than half as many employed during the Carter administration, despite significant growth in the American workforce and the number of government contract workers reaching a record high in 2020. While DOL is working within its existing spending authority to ramp up hiring, far more support is needed to rebuild agency capacity.

Numerous government reports have found that federal contractors are often among the worst violators of worker protection laws. For example, a 2013 investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) found that nearly 30 percent of the top violators of wage and safety laws were current government contractors that were together receiving billions in public dollars.

Contracting with companies that break workplace laws also frequently results in poor performance of federal contracts and a waste of public resources. A new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund finds that nearly one in three companies that committed the worst workplace law violations and received federal contracts later had significant performance problems, including contractors submitting fraudulent billing statements; falsifying qualifications for contract employees; accruing major cost overruns; as well as producing defective and sometimes dangerous equipment. Nearly 40 years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found a “direct correlation between labor law violations and poor quality construction” on HUD projects that contributed to excessive maintenance costs.

By supplying new funding for key enforcement agencies, Congress will empower workers whose jobs are funded through infrastructure investment to stand up for fair treatment on the job and also support good value for the public. Similarly, Weil — who was recently approved by the Senate HELP Committee — has a proven track record of targeting compliance efforts to the corporations most likely to violate workplace laws; updating workplace regulations to reflect the realities of the modern economy; and advancing actions to ensure that government contractors comply with the law.

The bipartisan infrastructure law provides a historic opportunity to modernize our infrastructure for the 21st century while also expanding access to good jobs for working people today. By supplying key funding and confirming leadership to these enforcement agencies, Congress would provide the Biden administration with the tools it needs to make this commitment a reality.

Karla Walter is senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress.

Tags bipartisan Build Back Better federal contractors government contractors Infrastructure Joe Biden Karla Walter wages workers

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