Should Subcontractors Be Able to Trust Prime Contractors?

Mon May 19, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson




Wanted: A few really good prime contractors. Purpose: Public recognition for treating subcontractors like partners instead of peons.

For the fourth year, the American Subcontractors Association is offering a Best Practices Award for prime contractors. This is how ASA characterizes its awards: “The purpose of these awards is to commend those specialty trade contractors and general contractors that exemplify the values of subcontractors, treat subcontractors fairly through use of level-playing-field contract terms, and consider subcontractors part of their core project teams.”

That strikes me as a plaintive cry, along the lines of, “Hey, how about a little respect here!” The irony is that subcontractors perform some 75 percent of construction work in the United States. They are the elephant in the industry, but clearly feel they are not being accorded the professional courtesies due them.

Among the best practices association members want to see become more prevalent in the industry are basics like prompt payment and prompt processing of change requests. Those are bottom lines in contracts. Everyone is in it for the money, after all, and when it isn’t forthcoming, there isn’t much reason to be working. General contractors presumably are sympathetic to the complaint.

The association’s current lobbying efforts reflect this priority. The ASA is asking that its members support legislation assuring that subcontractors will get paid in public-private partnerships. It seems that the subs on such projects aren’t protected by liens and bonds, so when a subcontractor pays its workers before submitting an invoice to a prime contractor, it places itself in financial jeopardy.

Here’s the most troubling aspect of the ASA awards process: Each year many seemingly upstanding prime contractors don’t qualify, says the ASA, because the contractors’ best practices give short shrift to subs. That is an internal embarrassment for the industry.

Wanted: A lot of otherwise good prime contractors who will pledge to get their acts together in working with their subcontractors.