Contractors To White House: Back Off On Orders Like ‘Safe Workplaces’ Screening

Several groups of federal contractors banded together early this month to tell the White House that President Obama should refrain in the “foreseeable future” from issuing executive orders that could negatively impact contractors, just as the administration rolls out a new policy requiring agencies to screen employers for OSHA and other labor violations.

Four associations representing defense, information technology and other industries with federal business tell the White House in an Aug. 3 letter that their members are taking a hit from the fallout of Obama’s orders. Their letter drew ridicule from worker safety and health activists who say the industry groups seems to believe they are entitled to federal contracts regardless of their labor law compliance records.

Federal contractors find that even when they support the policy goals of Obama’s EOs, often the long-term economic effects are damaging, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, National Defense Industrial Association, Professional Services Council and Information Technology Industry Council.

The groups tell top White House officials that since taking office, Obama has issued 12 EOs relevant to government contracting, resulting in 16 new regulations. “While we have openly expressed our support for some, suggested changes to others with which we agree on the intent, and raised major concerns about yet others, the net effect has been to significantly increase the costs of doing business with the government,” say the industry groups’ presidents in an Aug. 3 letter to presidential aides Denis McDonough and Valerie Jarrett.

Contractors’ most recent beef is with the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order issued in May, which is currently going through an implementation phase in which the Labor Department seeks comment on a policy to guide agencies in carrying out the order. At the same time rulemaking is under way to modify the Federal Acquisition Regulation to reflect Obama’s order. DOL has extended until Aug. 26 the comment deadline on the proposed policy. OSHA stakeholders in industry have complained that the EO is redundant with existing policy and could unfairly target businesses with still-unresolved OSHA citations.

The contractors’ lobby argues the rapid fire of new EOs has driven up costs and narrowed the field of competitors for federal jobs, to the detriment of agencies. “At a time when government budgets are under siege, cost efficiency is essential, and there is a broad agreement about the need for the government to open its aperture to enable access to the full marketplace of capabilities, this rapid growth in compliance requirements is becoming untenable,” the groups say. “Worse, while well intentioned, some of the EOs have required substantial investments in time and systems even though their actual impact is exceedingly minimal.” Some estimate that nearly 30 cents of every contract dollar goes toward compliance with unique government regulations, the letter says.

The groups “respectfully request that no further presidential directives primarily focused on government contractors be issued for the foreseeable future. The impacts, inefficiencies, and in many cases, unintended consequences are such that the interests of the American taxpayer are being significantly and negatively impacted.”

More than just existing contractors are affected by the Obama policies, they contend. “As efforts continue across the administration, and within our member companies, to expand the broad diversity of firms willing and able to support the government and to bring real innovation to bear for our nation, these unique and costly government-unique regulations simply raise an already substantial barrier between the commercial and government marketplaces.”

Worker safety and health activists have a vastly different take on whether Obama has used EOs too expansively, saying federal agencies need to know as much as possible about contract employers.

“It makes perfect sense that those receiving our taxpayer dollars for federal contracts would be held to a high standard of performance,” Lisa Gilbert, director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, tells Inside OSHA Online in an email. “The President has made the right call to use the powers vested in the executive branch to improve the contracting process, and there is still more that should be done.”

The Board of Certified Safety Professionals, in recent comments on the DOL implementing guidance, said it strongly agreed with the order’s premise “that those contractors who invest in their workers’ safety and maintain a fair and equitable workplace should not have to compete with contractors who offer slightly lower bids based on savings from skirting labor laws and then ultimately deliver poor performance to taxpayers.” — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)