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Ordinance requiring rest breaks approved over objections from builders

Friday, July 30, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The Austin City Council has approved an ordinance that will require regular rest breaks for construction workers. The unanimous vote came after members heard from a host of individuals who spoke in support of the measure.


However, despite the appeal of legislation that would give relief to a blue collar workforce while adding to the safety of its working environment, not all of Thursday’s testimony was about how helpful the law might be. Indeed, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin Executive Vice President Harry Savio rattled off a number of concerns his group had with the statute.


Savio told Council members that his issues had to do with both the process that was used to develop the ordinance and the language of the document itself.  “The ordinance…first became available to us Monday morning, three days ago,” he said. “It was hidden on the agenda…under Public Works even though it expressly addresses private sector employment practices on residential and commercial buildings.”


He added that, because there was “no opportunity to craft a better ordinance through public participation…the resulting document has serious shortcomings.” Savio said that these included a vague definition of the term “employer” that could spell confusion about the responsibility for posting signs advising workers of their right to a break and the unfairness of criminal and civil penalties for failure to post those signs.


As for mandatory rest breaks, Savio told Council members that the federal agency charged with looking in on workplace practices hadn’t yet tackled the issue. “Rest breaks are issues for (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), or they would have been addressed already,” he said.


After public testimony, Council Member Chris Riley offered a “few suggestions in order to address some of the concerns that have been raised.” He then amended the ordinance’s definition of “establishment” and offered clarifying language that he said would “ensure that the rest break signs will appear in the same location as other signs that are required by federal and state law.”


“We have had conversations with the Home Builders and others on this item, I think they have raised legitimate concerns, and I’m hopeful that these amendments will help address these concerns,” he added.


Council Member Laura Morrison then offered an amendment that called for staff to come back to the Council in six months “to let us know if there are concerns or things that could be adjusted.” Riley accepted the move, and it was added to the passed version of the legislation.


Savio told In Fact Daily that he thought that Riley’s action had addressed some of his concerns, but that he would have to review what had transpired. For starters, he said, residential work presented different challenges for enforcement of the law than did its large-scale commercial counterpart.


“One of the problems is that residential construction is not where you’re just coming to one job site every day. For the labor unions that you saw here working the issues, almost all of them…report to their central job location, pick up their wiring, their trucks, their equipment, and then report to the job site,” he said. “For those trades, (the ordinance) is definitely going to help.”


He also repeated his concern that the complaint-based enforcement mechanism of the ordinance could cause vindictive reporting. “We’re concerned that it’s going to be applied on a complaint basis, which by its nature is selective, and anything that is selective is discriminatory,” he said. “So if I have an activist or a union organizer employee who decides he wants to make life hard on me, the ordinance is going to be applied disproportionately to me and my activities.” 


From the dais, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez told the chamber that the main goal of the ordinance was not punishment. “The ordinance does have criminal penalties but…that’s not my intent,” he said. “If there are concerns, if there is non-compliance with the ordinance, (I’d ask) that we work together to bring folks in to compliance—as opposed to harming them in a punitive manner.”


According to its web site, the Home Builders Association “has more than 800 member firms representing several thousand people in all areas of the home building industry.” It goes on to say that its “members construct 95 percent of the new homes in the greater Austin market.”

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