Like many buildings of its vintage, the century-old headquarters of the United States General Services Administration was once lined with asbestos.
The hazardous mineral, used for fireproofing, filled nearly a half-million square feet of the building on F Street in downtown Washington, D.C. It took more than a hundred licensed workers almost a year to pry out the substance during a renovation that began in 2011. The workers would log nightly nine-hour shifts, spent mostly in air-tight spaces that reached 100 degrees. Some didn’t wear clothing beneath their protective Tyvek suits, hoping to stave off heat exhaustion and avoid bringing home cancer-causing asbestos fibers.
The pay for this grueling task was dictated by the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law that promises specific wages and benefits for construction work on government buildings and infrastructure. The compensation set by the U.S. Department of Labor under the act, based on location and job duties, is often higher than what’s offered on private-sector projects.
Three workers on the GSA job who spoke to the Center for Public Integrity said their employer didn’t tell them what they were owed under the law. They and 124 others filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in 2011.
Investigators found in the workers’ favor, saying they should have earned $25.47 per hour including benefits, as skilled laborers, a specific category of employee under Davis-Bacon. Instead, their supervisors paid them $15.84 an hour and classified their work as general labor. Six years after the complaint was filed, the investigation remains open because of an appeal. The workers still haven’t gotten their back pay.
“You feel powerless,” said Luis Fonseca, who, like his former colleagues on the GSA job, lost about $1,300 per month before overtime, which also was underpaid. “You see that companies are doing what they want and you can never do anything against them.”
But in some ways, Fonseca and his former co-workers already have beaten the odds.
The Wage and Hour Division must enforce at least 14 statutes across the nation’s 29 million businesses with a team of only 929 investigators as of the end of June. Federal agencies, which spent more than $470 billion on contracts during the 2016 fiscal year, are saddled with a flawed system to vet contractors and monitor their compliance with those laws. As a result, contractors’ violations rarely show up in government databases. Subcontractors, which often employ most of the workers on construction projects, get even less scrutiny.
Last year, the federal government spent more than $40 billion on contracts covered by Davis-Bacon. But a Center investigation found that about 70 percent of the businesses caught violating the law in 2016 don’t appear in federal databases designed to track companies’ contracting records.
Weak oversight allows subcontractors in particular to shortchange workers on government projects with little fear of being caught or barred from future contracts. Meanwhile, their overseers often maintain clean labor records and continue to win government business. This fiscal year, federal agencies have spent more than $425 million on contractors found to have violated Davis-Bacon in 2016, according to U.S. Treasury and Labor Department records analyzed by the Center. The top spenders: The U.S. Department of Defense and the GSA.
A GSA spokeswoman said in a written statement that the agency could not comment on the wage-theft allegations related to its headquarters renovation because of the ongoing Labor Department investigation. It’s GSA policy, she said, to check companies’ compliance records and investigate any concerns noted by contracting officers before awarding contracts.
The Defense Department conducts similar reviews to ensure that “contracts are only awarded to responsive and responsible companies,” a spokesman said in a statement.