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Federal Contract Labor Standards Statutes: An Overview

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Publication Date: November 2006

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32086

Topic: Law and ethics (Labor law)


In the late 1920s, following action taken in a number of states in dealing with state contracts, the federal government began development of a body of labor standards protections for workers employed by private contractors in federal contract work. The first of these statutes, the Davis-Bacon Act (1931), set basic labor standards (primarily, prevailing wage rates) for workers engaged in construction work, under contract, for the federal government. Two other major contract labor standards statutes followed: the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (1936) and the McNamara-O'Hara Service Contract Act (1965) -- respectively dealing with labor standards for workers engaged in contracts for production of goods and the provision of services.

These statutes, amended from time to time and supplemented by other enactments, deal only with federal contract work. They do not directly impact work performed for private sector entities, but clearly there are economic implications of the three primary federal contract labor standards statutes for private sector work. In part, the thrust of the statutes was to establish the federal government as a model employer to be emulated by the private sector. More directly, they were intended to provide economic protections to the targeted groups of workers and to assist, in some measure, in stabilizing the industries directly involved.

Both Davis-Bacon and Walsh-Healey were enacted prior to the more general Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA, 1938) which has come to provide a structure of minimum wages, overtime pay requirements, restraints upon child labor and industrial homework, inter alia, both for public and private workers. Even the McNamara-O'Hara Act was shaped and, finally, adopted while FLSA amendments (1961 and 1966) were being developed to bring wage/hour protections to service workers.

Through the years, these statutes have been the focus of numerous hearings and an extensive literature. Their provisions have been added to various federal program statutes -- usually by reference. And, they have sparked substantial debate, pro and con.

This report presents a brief historical introduction to the three federal contract labor standards statutes -- Davis-Bacon, Walsh-Healey, and McNamara-O'Hara -- and suggests how the several enactments (with the FLSA) are similar and different. It will be updated only if there are major developments in these areas.