The Architect of the Capitol’s construction division is designed to provide flexible labor options across the agency, but the Government Accountability Office says AOC needs to institute a formal process for collecting information on projects and priorities to better manage the temporary staff. In recent years employees in the construction division were given little notice of layoffs due to lack of work in certain jurisdictions.
In a report released this week, the GAO says AOC has missed opportunities to obtain information critical to making informed decisions about project staffing.
The construction division of AOC is staffed by temporary workers who are tradesmen or construction support employees and serve ten jurisdictions within the AOC for projects that vary widely in cost, complexity, and duration. For renovations and repairs, jurisdictions can use their own employees, a contractor or workers from the AOC construction division.
In March 2017, AOC laid off 30 of the construction division’s approximately 190 temporary employees, citing a lack of work from the jurisdictions. In August of the same year, Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar wrote to the comptroller general requesting a GAO report on the construction division, costs associated with using the division’s workers, the terms of employment and if the temporary employment aligns with federal best practices.
GAO found that without a formal system for collecting information from the jurisdictions about projects and priorities, determining workforce needs for the construction division is an ongoing challenge.
“The Division also cannot provide reasonable assurance to AOC management and Congress that it is taking the steps necessary to manage its workload and that it is basing its workforce projections on the most current information available,” says the report.
As of 2018 the construction division had 162 employees, including 12 permanent staff for executive management and administration. Of the 150 temporary workers, the division had 124 trade workers, including electricians, plumbers, masons, and hazardous material abaters and 26 construction support employees that were hired for 13- or 24-month appointments. The temporary workers do receive benefits.
The AOC says that the drivers behind the size and makeup of the construction division's workforce is project demand and funding availability. The division is hired by different teams within the AOC for projects, which means that when there is a lull in projects, there is also a lull in funding to pay salaries and expenses of the division employees. In the last five fiscal years, the construction division has fluctuated from a high of 191 workers in 2016 to a low of 121 in 2018.
The GAO found that while the division began collecting information on construction priorities through a monthly data call in 2017, the lack of written procedures for the call has resulted in a lack of clarity of who is responsible for collecting information, what information should be collected, and when that information should be collected.
“Formalized processes, such as written procedures, can help ensure that steps an agency is taking can be implemented in a predictable, repeatable, and accountable way. Such procedures are also a key component of internal control designed to provide reasonable assurance that an organization’s operations are effective and efficient,” the report stated.
The report found that the AOC followed its practices when laying off of 30 temporary employees in March 2017, but those practices have been changed. At the time of the layoffs, AOC did not have a policy requiring the division to give notice to employees of an impending layoff. According to GAO, the AOC issued guidance in October 2018 that standardized notification for layoffs due to lack of work or lack of funds. There is now a notification period two weeks ahead of a layoff.
Acting Architect of the Capitol Christine Merdon told lawmakers Wednesday that the AOC is developing a policy that would have more rigorous planning for workforce needs and would also get commitments from jurisdictions on funds for projects.
“We are delighted with that report,” she said. “From a managers point of view or an employees point of view, having swings in hiring and laying people off is your not being a good employer and it also becomes very difficult to retain people.”
Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee said he’d like to see the reports recommendations in action.
“Obviously the goal here is if we can not lay off folks, if we can have a right sized force for as long a period as possible that would be better for everybody,” Murphy said.
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