Worker Abuse and the Stimulus

By Brian Beutler

Daphne Eviatar catches something important missing from the stimulus.

While most of the debate over the proposed stimulus bill has focused on whether the federal government ought to embark on a plan expected to cost taxpayers some $885 billion, equally important is how that money gets spent. Much of the construction and other work will have to be done by private companies contracting with federal, state and local governments. But how the government contracts with private companies, and how those contracts are monitored, can make all the difference to the program’s success.

Although government watchdog groups have been largely supportive of the bill’s provisions for oversight of government contractors, some say that a key problem may have been overlooked: several important means of holding government contractors accountable are missing from the voluminous 647-page stimulus bill. Most importantly, the stimulus bill fails to adequately protect employees of government contractors, who are in the best position to blow the whistle on fraud and abuse of taxpayer money. The Senate version of the bill also doesn’t protect federal employee whistleblowers — an odd oversight given that state and local employees are protected.

Weak labor protections were a huge problem after Katrina. There are important distinctions, of course. Recall, for instance, that George Bush suspended the Davis Bacon Act for six months after Katrina, and, without underestimating the direness of the current crisis, surely there was a greater sense of urgency after the hurricane than there is now. But in many parts of the country, particularly in the south, state agencies aren’t equipped to work on behalf of tens of thousands of contractors. And, after decades of decline, the Department of Labor isn’t equipped to watchdog such a huge project, new leadership notwithstanding.