For more than 30 years, cities have been barred from leveraging our buying power to put local people to work on public projects. The regressive Reagan-era ban on local hire has hurt workers and stymied our economies. But last month, after unveiling a major infrastructure spending plan in March, the Department of Transportation announced the revival of a local hiring pilot program.
This is a step in the right direction, but the Biden administration must do more. This is not the time for piecemeal reforms. Now is the time for bold, transformative action.
We are calling on President Joe Biden to fully lift the federal ban on local hiring for federally funded projects. This will allow cities to use those federal dollars to create local jobs – and help us, as mayors, make our regions more prosperous and sustainable for all.
Obstacles to a fair economy
The story started in 1988, when the Reagan administration banned geographic-based hiring preferences on projects funded by the federal government. The ban was adopted without consulting Congress and established on the unfounded basis that local hiring policies would increase the price of public works projects and reduce the number of companies willing to bid on those projects.
For the past 33 years, this rule has prevented our cities from including simple criteria in our public contracts that would promote a fair economy where everyone can reach their full potential.
The antiquated local hire prohibition remained untouched until an Obama-Biden administration pilot program from 2015-17 that allowed cities and states to test local hire policies on a limited number of projects. The Biden administration has, in essence, reinstated this program.
In March, research released by Jobs to Move America about the Obama-Biden pilot revealed that temporarily lifting the local hire prohibition paved the way to real, lasting and positive changes for the people we serve. Analysis from the local hire pilot also indicated that including these provisions did not result in fewer bidders on projects, and that there was no significant difference in bid amounts between projects, whether they included local hire or not.
We are heartened to hear that President Biden is prioritizing major new infrastructure investment. But for our communities to fully realize the benefits that these investments bring, he must immediately end the outdated, shortsighted and ill-advised ban on local hire provisions that keeps our own residents – especially people in the Black and Hispanic communities hardest hit during the pandemic – from feeling the true impacts of large-scale public investment.
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When we don’t offer our own residents a lifeline out of poverty, and an open door to a steady job, we perpetuate barriers to prosperity that have deepened systemic inequities and kept those doors of economic growth slammed shut for generations.
If the ban is removed, cities and states can ask companies winning public contracts to hire local workers for federally funded public works projects, including construction, water infrastructure, broadband and public health campaigns to encourage the unvaccinated to get their shots. Depending on the level of investment, this could apply to millions if not tens of millions of jobs across the country.
Jobs that can shrink the wealth gap
Phillip Washington, the recently departed CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, noted in March that growing up as a Black man in Chicago, the people building the infrastructure in his community didn’t look like him. Local hire provisions mean that we have an opportunity to “operationalize equity,” he said.
By removing the ban on local hire, we can start training programs for more workers who don’t often get a chance for a good job on an infrastructure project – especially people of color, women, veterans and others facing barriers to employment, such as a history with the justice system.
These actions will provide an entire generation of workers with lifelong careers and help close the wealth gap driving this country apart.
Many events, like the pandemic, are beyond our control. Others, like how we choose to respond, are firmly within our power. We have to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes that got us into this crisis and left so much economic devastation in its wake.
The Biden-Harris administration has the tools at its disposal to begin the post-pandemic healing process nationwide. We urge you to listen to mayors across America who are fighting to put our people to work rebuilding our country.
Daniella Levine Cava (@MayorDaniella) is mayor of Miami-Dade, Florida. Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) is mayor of Los Angeles. Ben Walsh (@BenWalsh44) is mayor of Syracuse, New York. Randall Woodfin (@randallwoodfin) is mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.