The White House is requiring federal agencies to formally designate a labor adviser who will ensure government contracts are complying with federal employment law.

Agency labor advisers are subject-matter experts on contract and labor rules, though not every agency has one, nor has there been uniform support for training these positions, according to a memo issued Jan. 10 by the White House Office of Management and Budget. That’s why OMB, in partnership with the Department of Labor, is requiring the two-dozen largest agencies to designate at least one career employee as a labor adviser by Feb. 15 if they don’t already have one.

The guidance adds another layer of pro-labor policy to the Biden administration’s approach to its workforce, which is comprised of 2.2 million federal civilian employees and nearly 5 million outside of government who work on contracts, according to Brookings Institute projections.

The goal is for labor advisers to help agencies avoid employment violations that can result in costly backpay, lawsuits and erosion of trust in the $600 billion federal procurement system.

A 2020 watchdog report from the Government Accountability Office found that despite a long list of employee protections enumerated in federal labor and contract law, there were violations of wage or benefit protections in nearly 70% of Service Contract Act cases spanning a five-year period. That resulted in contractors agreeing to pay approximately $224 million in back wages.

Seven years earlier, the Senate found that almost 30% of the top violators of federal wage and safety laws were federal contractors.

Both reports attributed at least some of the transgressions to a lack of clear information provided by the Department of Labor.

“Contracting officers still lack clear standards that would allow them to interpret the meaning of violations of federal labor law, and therefore do not undertake a formal or standardized process in evaluating a prospective contractor’s compliance with federal labor law prior to awarding a contract,” said the Senate’s 2013 report.

The new OMB guidance aims to bridge information gap by supporting labor advisers as liaisons who have the legal expertise to identify burgeoning labor violations before they erupt.

The Department of Labor is expected to train new labor advisers and provide technical assistance. The department will also form a group with help from OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy that will meet regularly as a sounding board for advisers and other acquisition professionals.

Immediate priorities include training on predecessor contract hiring, project labor agreements and promoting labor peace, the memo said.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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