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Commissioners Court delays action on worker safety recommendations

Monday, April 23, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court will put off for several weeks a decision on a package of proposals aimed at strengthening protections for construction workers on county projects.

Last Tuesday, the court discussed 10 recommendations set forth by Purchasing Office staff in collaboration with the Workers Defense Project. The proposals would gird the county’s Better Builder Program, aiming to safeguard workers against wage theft, low wages, work site hazards, lack of training and irresponsible employers.

The recommendations are largely a series of certifications that contractors on a county-owned public works project would sign, creating a paper trail of commitments to paying appropriate wages, providing federally approved safety training, and other work site safety measures.

Purchasing Agent Bonnie Floyd told the court that her office would ultimately require an addition of eight to 10 full-time employees to oversee the program, which would apply to projects such as the renovation of the historic U.S. courthouse the county acquired last year as well as future road expansions.

Phil Thoden, president of the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, told the court that he is wary of the proposal because of the WDP’s potential role as a work site monitor. The group, he said, has a bias that is explicitly stated in its name.

“When contractors that I talk to see that they’re going to be working on a project that involves a non-independent entity given widespread access to the job site and effectively police powers over that job site, it raises a level of concern for them,” Thoden explained.

The WDP’s Bo Delp followed Thoden’s remarks with statistics that paint a troubling picture of the construction industry. In 2016, he said, 133 workers in Texas died on the job due to unsafe conditions.

Putting a face and voice to the statistics was Jesus Mendez, a construction worker who told the court of an incident in which he was electrocuted twice in one shift.

“At that moment, I felt powerless,” he said through a translator. “I got down, I got my tools, and I didn’t want to continue working. And one of the bosses told me that I had to finish to the job.”

Rather than file an incident report, another boss simply laughed at him, Mendez said.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty acknowledged the need for safe work environments, but raised his concern about hiring new staffers to handle the program. He also echoed Thoden’s wariness of the WDP being involved in the monitoring.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt answered those concerns by pointing out that the majority of the recommendations are simply adding enforcement mechanisms to federal mandates.

“We are expanding our capacity for the first few years of the program through partnership with Workers Defense Project, but at the end of the day the goal is an in-house, independent Better Builder compliance program that is a component of our larger contract compliance,” she said.

Nonetheless, Daugherty requested a postponement on the vote. Delp told the Austin Monitor he expects the matter to come back before the court in two to three weeks.

In the meantime, he suggested that the WDP will stand steadfast in its support of the proposed program.

“If commercial contractors want to advocate for less accountability and for taxpayer dollars being awarded to contractors who routinely commit wage theft and who routinely skirt federal safety laws, then we have a fundamental disagreement with that perspective, and we’re ready to have that conversation,” he said.

Photo by Bill Jacobus made available through a Creative Commons license.

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