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Travis County considers task force to study living wage for projects

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Discussions are underway at Travis County to form a new Workers Task Force.


The creation of the task force would move forward a discussion that started when County Commissioners passed an economic incentives policy in November 2012. It would come in the face of recent pushback from the state legislature, which is now poised to consider whether municipalities such as Travis County and the City of Austin can implement living wage provisions in their economic incentive policies.


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt brought forward the proposal on Tuesday. She asked her fellow commissioners for support in creating the new group, which will identify ways that Travis County’s economic development and procurement policies can improve working conditions and wages for the construction in the work force.


Eckhardt explained that currently both the city and county were discussing the possibilities of using federal index of regional prevailing wages, known as Davis-Bacon wages. Eckhardt said that the county would, with this task force, examine how wage provisions could be implemented.


“Many states that are not right to work states, like Texas, peg to the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage,” Eckhardt told In Fact Daily. “In the economic development policy (we use) the floor of $11. In our procurement policies, when we do a design-build bid, we are able, under statute, to require Davis-Bacon prevailing wage. But we’re not, by statute, able to require it in other arenas. We could – and this is where the task force comes in – look at legal parameters for contracting the utilization of Davis-Bacon wages.”


Last November, Travis County passed a landmark wage floor requirement as part of its economic development policy. The floor parallels the county’s own minimum wage of $11 per hour, which must be paid to all employees of companies wishing to qualify for economic incentives, including construction workers.


Though a City Council subcommittee also recommended implementation of a wage floor last November, it has yet to be considered by the entire Council.


“When we talked about it, I hoped we would get the city of Austin to participate with us, but they seem to be moving more slowly,” said Judge Sam Biscoe.


According to a memo from Eckhardt, two internal county representatives would be from Travis County Purchasing and Travis County Planning and Budget. Suggested community representation includes a representative for labor unions, a community representative, and a representative from the businesses community.


In the memo, Workers Defense Project and Austin Interfaith are suggested as possible sources for a community representative, while the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the General Contractors Association are listed as possible sources for potential representatives from the businesses community.


Biscoe asked that a representative from the minority small businesses community be added to the task force. A representative from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club also came forward with the suggestion that the environmental community have a place at the table.


Though Eckhardt’s original proposal also included a county attorney as one of the internal members, commissioners discussed making that position ex-officio, or non-voting, so that the attorney could serve an advisory role without conflict.


Gregorio Casar, business liaison with the Workers Defense Project, said that his group was really excited about the task force.


“We know that in the construction industry as it stands now in Texas, there is the ability for the people who we don’t ask the right questions of to create really dangerous jobs, really low-paying jobs, or jobs where the law is broken,” said Casar. “But, if we ask the right questions… we can use that investment as an opportunity to create good, safe jobs for local people.”


“As a state we are pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to wages and safety (in) construction. So, if we can help, that’s what the task force is for,” Eckhardt told In Fact Daily. “To the extent that we are doing big construction projects, we want to look at what all we can do to increase the safety and the equity of wage structure for those people who are building our courthouses, our (Transportation and Natural Resources) offices, and our (Justice of the Peace) offices.”


The task force idea will be back before Commissioners Court for a vote next week.


Commissioner Ron Davis expressed some concern that the task force might overlap with one of his own initiatives for workers in Travis County. Though it remained unclear whether those plans would fit into the role of this task force, he and Eckhardt promised to work together over the next week to resolve those issues.

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