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Black-Brown Summit in DC Addresses Construction Jobs

Washington Informer, News Report, Shantella Y. Sherman Posted: Oct 14, 2009

Black, Hispanic Construction Companies Get Short Shrift in Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Last year, $30 billion in federal contracts were awarded to companies in the Washington, D.C. area, yet the number of District minority-owned companies that benefitted from the federal procurement process proved to be miniscule. Minority construction companies who had hoped to earn a living, found their livelihoods depended on access to elusive contracts as opposed to skill.

D.C. Councilmember Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), in conjunction with the Hispanic Contractors Association and the District of Columbia Chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, held a day-long conference, Black and Brown Business Summit: Challenges and Opportunities in the Construction Industry, Sat., Oct. 3, to address the concerns of minority construction workers.

African American and Hispanic contractors have so much in common. They fight the same battles everyday to gain equal access to local contracts and therefore its only natural that they work together to break down barriers to their shared goals, Brown said.

Roughly 70 construction workers and contractors attended the summit. The group voiced their concerns over the presence of out-of-state construction companies who have been awarded lucrative District projects. To date, they said that African Americans and Hispanic-owned businesses have received short shrift in the multi-million dollar contracting industry.

Warren Stevenson, of Stevenson Transportation and East of the River Truckers in Southeast, said that he has been involved in the construction field since he can remember. Stevenson, 53, said he worked alongside his father as a youngster. As an 8(a) contractor, Stevenson said that the level playing field promised under the incentive, has yielded few opportunities. Under 8(a), small and minority businesses are supposed to be given equal access to federal procurement dollars allocated to D.C. companies.

Stevenson also said that large construction companies determined the wages of District workers and contractors. He presented documentation pertaining to Goldin and Stafford LLC, based in Landover, Md. He said that the company had offered $15,000 out of a $40 million construction contract to his company.

Marion Barry had it right when he said that a company had to have a majority of D.C. workers, and a fair number of minorities working as sub-contractors and crew in place before he would sign off on any business ventures. Those rules have gone out the window under [District Mayor Adrian] Fenty, Stevenson said.

Stevenson said that he is upset with large companies that initially sidestepped projects in Wards 7 and 8, and once resources were allocated, refused to hire workers and contractors in the wards.

For years, I petitioned the city to allow me to revitalize houses in Ward 8 and I got no respect. Now that Homeland Security is in Anacostia and there are resources behind revitalization, those same offices who turned me down are sending me to large, out-of-state construction companies to live off of whatever crumbs they throw my way, Stevenson said.

D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development Director Lee A. Smith, III, attended the event. He said that his office is equipped to handle mismanagement and abuse of contracts. Despite safeguards that have been put in place to prevent out-of-state companies from obtaining D.C. set-asides, Smith said that enforcing such regulations require the vigilance of workers.

Just like the Internal Revenue Service, we expect people to be honest and forthcoming on their applications. And, just like people who cheat on their tax returns, there will be people who will try to pull a fast one on us. We need people who witness abuses of the system to report them, Smith said.

Many small construction company owners at the session talked about mandatory insurance, workmens compensation and FICA rules specifically set up for District construction employers. Those costs add up to more than $30,000 per year, before a single contract can be signed. Placing competitive bids, said John Sherrod, 48, of Northeast, becomes almost impossible. Sherrod also blames the woeful state of D.C. minority contracts on Mayor Fenty.

Small construction companies in D.C. cannot compete effectively when Maryland and Virginia companies do not have those same strings attached to their operations. The mayor is trying to eliminate all set asides for small businesses by turning contracts over to large corporations. Even things like supply scheduling is being turned over to companies like Staples and Office Depot, rather than the small businesses that have handled them for generations, Sherrod said.

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