Thursday, August 8, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Task forces urges increased safety, better pay for construction workers

Travis County must do more to ensure the safety of and fair compensation for its construction workers. Those are unquestionably the biggest issues facing construction workers today according to the Economic Development Task Force the county formed to study this issue. 

The issue is timely as the county prepares to break ground on its new downtown Civil and Family Courthouse project touted to cost county taxpayers upward of $300 million and expected to employ a wealth of construction workers. And today, Austin City Council will be tackling the latest developments in a high-profile White Lodging case which involves arguments over prevailing wages. (See Whispers)

“There are some minimal protections that are standard in many other states for construction jobs that are currently missing in Texas and in Travis County,” Gregorio Casar of the Workers Defense Project told the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. “Jobs that used to be considered working class or middle class are now being left as poverty wage jobs. And (there are) jobs where many construction workers are being hurt and don’t have protections like worker’s comp or haven’t gotten safety training. I think all of us agree that construction jobs need to be and can be improved.”

The creation of the economic task force – made up of business owners, city executives, a real estate developer, an Austin Interfaith leader, union, labor and trade representatives, and internal County officials – was driven by former Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez.

After holding weekly meetings over the last six weeks to discuss and vote on 12 specific construction worker-involved issues, on Tuesday the task force presented the court  with 8 unanimous recommendations for improving current policy.

The group advised the court to require all construction workers on all county projects and county subsidized projects have at least basic OSHA-10 safety training and certification, and that a certified safety supervisor be on-site throughout construction – a policy which mirrors that of the City of Austin.

Other unanimously approved recommendations include offering incentives to developers who consider job training opportunities for economically disadvantaged individuals, hiring of veterans, following the county’s guidelines for historically underutilized business and excluded individuals (e.g. women and minorities.) The task force also wholly agreed that the county should accept the best bids from companies that provide reasonable health care coverage for their workers.

While the task force unanimously agrees construction workers must have the right to take any wage complaint to the county on incentivized projects, it disagrees on other issues of compensation.

According to minority opinion as stated in the task force’s report, “There is insufficient data to justify paying prevailing wages. There was consensus among the group that adding a prevailing wage requirement would add about 4 percent to the labor cost of a project.”

Paul Saldaña of the Minority Trade Association Alliance argued some of the compensation recommendations might not have the desired effect of helping small business owners and the kinds of workers the task force has in mind.

“I’m all for prevailing and living wage; everybody should have quality of life,” he said. “But, we shouldn’t do it at the expense of other groups.” Saldaña said many of the workers at issue are “his people” who wouldn’t qualify for prevailing wage. “Certified payrolls require a Social Security number which some of the applicants won’t have. I’m just trying to address the elephant in the room. If the intent for us is to help those individuals, they’re not going to be helped by this.”

A minority also disagrees with the recommendation of increasing the maximum total tax incentive by 5 percent to 85 percent, saying that the increase would benefit corporate incentive applicants more than low-wage construction workers or the average Travis County resident.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who appointed two task force members – a realtor and an Austin Chamber executive – said the group was unbalanced.

“There seems to be a pretty big omission of industry people on this committee,” he said. “I think there’s room for improvement on that. “ One of Daugherty’s appointees pointed out no one on the task force worked in the construction industry. She also claimed the group reached its recommendation with an inadequate amount of financial and economic impact analysis.

When it became clear the court wouldn’t be taking any significant action based on the report, one task force member expressed disappointment.

To form this task committee and to come back and only have discussion or motion on a little part of it is disheartening to me (considering) all the work we’ve put into this,” said Phillip Lawhon of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Now, we’re talking about prolonging the process. We need to move forward with this in a timely manner. We need a vote on all the issues and to move forward.”

Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd agreed that time is of the essence.

“I hear we’re already losing businesses who are just marking us off the list because of the difficulty of getting definitive answers here,” he said.

In a 4-1 vote with Daugherty dissenting, the Court adopted the 8 unanimous recommendations which county staff will evaluate over the next six weeks before working on a plan for incorporating them into current policy. On August 13, task force members will be back before the court to discuss the 4 or 5 recommendations on which the group was split.

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