The fiscal austerity crowd is preoccupied with the size of government, but what they rarely acknowledge is that more than $500 billion in annual federal outlays take the form of purchases of goods and services from the private sector. Uncle Sam’s role as the country’s biggest consumer means that federal agencies are in a good position to expect the highest standards of conduct from contractors.
A new report by the majority staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee shows that the federal government is not doing a good job of enforcing such standards when it comes to working conditions at contractor companies. In fact, the report shows that violations of occupational safety and health regulations as well as wage and hour laws are rampant among the contractors.
Some key findings of the report:
- Eighteen federal contractors were among those companies receiving the 100 largest penalties issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2007 and 2012. Contractors accounted for 48 percent of the dollar value of those penalties.
- Thirty-two federal contractors were among the companies receiving the large back-wage assessments ordered by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor between 2007 and 2012.
- The 49 federal contractors in these categories were found to have been cited for 1,776 separate violations and paid $196 million in penalties and assessments. In fiscal year 2012, these same companies were awarded $81 billion in federal contracts.
Misconduct by contractors is an old story, but legislation passed in 2008 was supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to identify bad actors and disqualify them from contract awards. The law provided for the development of an official database along the lines of the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database created by the Project On Government Oversight.
That database did come into being and is known as the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, or FAPIIS. In its current state, FAPIIS is a big disappointment. The Senate report points out that of the 49 contractors on the lists of largest labor violations only one has such instances of misconduct included in its FAPIIS entry. As the report states with understandable outrage:
In perhaps the most astonishing example of the failures of FAPIIS, BP, despite the deaths, injuries, and massive environmental damage, as well as the billion dollar settlements resulting from the Deep Water Horizon incident, and despite the deaths, injuries and fines resulting from the Texas City refinery explosion [photo], and despite holding $2 billion in contracts in 2012, has no misconduct entries in FAPIIS.
The Senate report does not just point out the limitations of FAPIIS but also demonstrates how more aggressive information-gathering on companies can be done. Its authors delved into the enforcement databases of both OSHA and the WHD to identify which contractors were serial violators. The results are presented both in summary tables in the report and in a 448-page appendix with key data on several dozen of the worst offenders.
In the occupational safety and health category, it is no surprise that the company at the top of the list of violators is BP, which is a rare example of a large company that was actually debarred (albeit temporarily) from doing business with the federal government because of its misconduct.
On the wage and hour side, it is also not surprising that the company appearing most often in the list of the biggest back pay assessments is Wal-Mart, though the company does a miniscule amount of business with the federal government. Also on high up on the list are companies focused on government contracting, such as private prison operator Management & Training Corporation and Pentagon outsourcer IAP Worldwide Services (owned by the private equity company Cerberus Capital Management).
While the Senate report calls on the General Services Administration, which oversees FAPIIS, to clean up the database, it also urges the Department of Labor to do more to publicize the names of contractors that were found to be violators of federal labor laws.
But why stop with DOL? Shouldn’t every regulatory agency take pains to highlight bad actors and make sure federal procurement officials know who they are?
There is much talk of entitlement reform with regard to safety net programs. What we need instead is more attention on corporations that think they are entitled to receive contracts from the federal government even when they show little regard for federal regulations.