Federal Contracting: Actions Needed to Improve Department of Labor’s Enforcement of Service Worker Wage Protections

What GAO Found

The Department of Labor (DOL) completed over 5,000 Service Contract Act (SCA) cases, which for many resulted in the awarding of back wages to federally contracted security guards, janitors, and other service workers, in fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to available data. DOL enforces the SCA, which was enacted to protect workers on certain types of federal service contracts. DOL found SCA violations—primarily of wage and benefit protections—in 68 percent of cases. Employers across a range of service industries agreed to pay around $224 million in back wages (see figure for examples). Sixty cases resulted in debarment—a decision to prevent an employer from being awarded new federal contracts for 3 years. DOL’s strategic plan emphasizes optimizing resources for resolving cases using all available enforcement tools. However, DOL does not analyze its use of enforcement tools, such as debarment or employer compliance agreements. Therefore, DOL may lack a complete picture of how it uses resources on different strategies for resolving SCA cases, as well as the effectiveness of these enforcement strategies.

Back Wages Paid for SCA Cases in Example Industries, Fiscal Years 2014-2019

Note: Mail haul refers to surface mail transportation by contract carriers. Values are adjusted for inflation and expressed in fiscal year 2019 dollars using the Gross Domestic Product Price Index from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.

DOL reported various challenges to enforcing the SCA, including difficulty communicating with contracting agencies. For example, DOL officials told GAO that poor communication with contracting agencies—particularly with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—can affect and delay cases, though USPS officials told GAO they were unaware of any communication gaps. Without addressing communication issues between USPS and DOL, USPS’s implementation and DOL’s enforcement of the SCA may be weakened.

GAO found that contracting agencies may face SCA implementation challenges, including not having key information about SCA debarments and violations from DOL. When recording SCA debarments, DOL does not always include the unique identifier for an employer so that contracting agencies can accurately identify debarred firms. DOL also does not have a process that consistently or reliably informs contracting agencies about SCA violations by employers. Without improved information sharing by DOL, an agency may award a contract to an employer without being aware of or considering its past SCA violations.

Why GAO Did This Study

The SCA ensures that service workers on certain federal contracts receive pay and benefits that reflect current employment conditions in their locality. From fiscal years 2014 through 2019, the U.S. government obligated over $720 billion on service contracts covered under the SCA.

GAO was asked to review SCA implementation and enforcement. This report examines (1) what available data reveal about past SCA cases, (2) what challenges DOL reports facing in enforcing the SCA, and (3) how contracting agencies implement the SCA. GAO analyzed DOL and federal procurement data for fiscal years 2014 through 2019, the most recent years available; reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of contract performance assessments; examined practices at three agencies selected to represent a range of contracting services and agency size; interviewed DOL officials; and reviewed relevant federal laws, policy, and guidance.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOL analyze its use of enforcement tools; that DOL and USPS implement written protocols to improve communication with each other; and that DOL improve its information sharing with contracting agencies on SCA debarments and investigation outcomes. DOL and USPS generally concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Thomas M. Costa at (202) 512-7215 or costat@gao.gov.

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For example, in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that federal spending exceeded $110 billion in response to Katrina and $53 billion in response to Sandy. GAO analysis suggests that the selected hurricanes were associated with widely varying effects on overall economic activity and total employment in affected metropolitan areas and counties. Economic activity was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in three of the affected metropolitan areas GAO analyzed. Within one year, average economic activity in these three metropolitan areas was similar to or greater than what it had been the year before the hurricane. Total employment was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in 80 of the affected counties GAO analyzed. Total employment was higher than pre-hurricane employment on average in 47 of those counties within one year but remained below pre-hurricane employment on average in the other 33 counties for at least one year. Finally, state and local government officials said that the selected hurricanes had significant impacts on communities, local governments, households, and businesses with fewer resources and less expertise, and that challenges faced by households may have impacted local businesses. Communities affected by selected hurricanes have been taking actions to improve resilience, but multiple factors can affect their decisions. Actions taken after selected hurricanes include elevating, acquiring, and rehabilitating homes; flood-proofing public buildings; repairing and upgrading critical infrastructure; constructing flood barriers; and updating building codes. A community’s decision to take resilience actions can depend on the costs and benefits of those actions to the community. Multiple factors affect these costs and benefits, including the likelihood, severity, and location of future disasters, as well as the amount of federal assistance available after a disaster. Finally, vulnerabilities remain in areas affected by selected hurricanes. For example, state and local government officials indicated that many older homes in these areas do not meet current building codes. In reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states indicate they anticipate that the scope of damages via exposure to weather hazards, such as hurricanes, will likely remain high and could expand across regions affected by the selected hurricanes. In addition, some local governments have projected that population will grow in the regions affected by selected hurricanes. For more information, contact Oliver Richard at 202-512-8424 or richardo@gao.gov.
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    The Navy's July 2020 report identified two key causes and several contributing factors regarding maintenance delays for aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines, but did not identify other causes. For public shipyards, the Navy's report identified the key cause of maintenance delays as insufficient capacity relative to growing maintenance requirements. For private shipyards, the Navy's report identified the key cause as the addition of work requirements after a contract is awarded. These causes and other identified factors generally align with factors that GAO has previously identified as originating during the maintenance process. However, the Navy's report did not consider causes and factors originating in the acquisition process or as a result of operational decisions, as shown below. GAO-Identified Factors Contributing to Maintenance Delays That the Navy Identified in Its July 2020 Report The report identified stakeholders needed to implement action plans, but did not fully incorporate other elements of results-oriented management, including achievable goals, metrics to measure progress, and resources and risks. Some examples from the report: Stakeholders: Identified Naval Sea Systems Command as the primary implementer of most initiatives related to maintenance at shipyards. Goals: Included a goal of reducing days of maintenance delay by 80 percent during fiscal year 2020.The Navy did not achieve this goal based on GAO's analysis of Navy data. Metrics: Included some metrics. The Navy is still identifying and developing other key metrics. Resources: Did not identify costs of the actions in the report. Risks: Identified as risks the coronavirus pandemic, unstable funding, and limited material availability. However, the report did not assess additional risks that GAO previously identified. The Navy generally has been unable to complete ship and submarine maintenance on time, resulting in reduced time for training and operations, and additional costs. The Navy's ability to successfully maintain its ships is affected by numerous factors throughout a ship's life cycle, such as decisions made during acquisition, which occurs years before a ship arrives at a shipyard for maintenance. Others manifest during operational use of the ship or during the maintenance process. The conference report accompanying a bill for the Fiscal Year 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act directed the Secretary of the Navy to submit a report identifying the underlying causes of maintenance delays for aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines and to include elements of results-oriented management. The conference report also included a provision for GAO to review the Navy's report that was released in July 2020. This report evaluates the extent to which the Navy's report (1) identifies the underlying causes of maintenance delays and (2) incorporates elements of results-oriented management. GAO reviewed the Navy's report and interviewed Navy officials. Since 2015, GAO has made 39 unclassified recommendations related to Navy maintenance delays. The Navy or the Department of Defense concurred or partially concurred with 37 recommendations, and had implemented six of them as of September 2020. For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or MaurerD@gao.gov.
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