by Kim Krisberg
When most of us think of sustainability and construction, the usual suspects probably come to mind: efficient cooling and heating, using nontoxic building materials, minimizing environmental degradation — in other words, being green. But in Austin, Texas, a new effort is working to expand the definition of sustainability from the buildings themselves to the hands that put them together.
Launched about a year ago, the Workers Defense Project‘s Premier Community Builders program certifies major new developments as sustainable for workers. That means making sure construction workers get a fair and livable wage, proper safety training and are covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Developers are also required to hire a percentage of their work force from local technical schools.
The effort confronts a real and deadly problem in Texas, where more construction workers die on the job than in other state in the country. In 2009 alone, nearly 140 Texas workers lost their lives on the job — that’s one death every two-and-a-half days. Less than half as many construction workers died that same year in California, which has a construction industry comparable to the Lone Star state, according to Greg Casar, business liaison at the Austin-based Workers Defense Project. The goal of the certification program, Casar told me, is to make sure sustainability is truly measured across three pillars: equity, ecology and economy.
“When we talk about green buildings and being sustainable for the community, we think it’s important that workers aren’t being put in harm’s way,” Casar said. “We want to be able to call a building sustainable when it’s benefiting the entire community. If a development is being built and workers aren’t being paid and trained properly, that’s bad for sustainable development.”
While the certification program is well on it way, it celebrated a big win in late May when Austin City Council officials included certification components into a deal with Trammell Crow Company, which is purchasing and developing a 4.4-acre plot of city land to turn into a massive mixed-used development of housing, retail and offices. Casar noted that construction workers themselves led the effort, mobilizing to march for their rights and providing hours of testimony to city officials.
“It was a very exciting step for construction workers here in Austin,” Casar said. “We’d like this to be a flagship development, an example of how a development should be done for workers. If the city of Austin and other community stakeholders start seeing high quality construction that is sustainable for workers and isn’t putting people’s lives unnecessarily at risk then we can create an example for the future and create economic incentives for developers to get certified.”
Now, Trammell Crow Company will be required to work toward certification, ensure contractors provide workers’ compensation insurance, provide OSHA-approved safety training, and allow a Workers Defense Project representative to monitor and speak with workers on the work site at least once per pay period. (The on-site monitoring is particularly critical, Casar noted. It means that regardless of the layers upon layers of subcontracting — a major contributor to creating dangerous working environments in which workers often fall through the cracks — Workers Defense Project monitors can make sure no corners are being are unfairly or unsafely cut on the job.) The developer will also be required to hire at least 20 percent of its workers from local technical schools.
“We’ve found that a majority of workers have less than five years experience in the construction industry and the vast majority has no real, formal training,” Casar said. “We’re trying to create incentives for hiring from technical schools so workers can really create a career out of construction.”
Work on the mixed-use development, which will be on the site of a former water treatment plant and is expected to involve about 1,500 workers, will likely begin at the end of the year, Casar said. Workers Defense Project plans on working closely with the developer so it can eventually achieve certification — “we want to resolve problems; it’s not about one strike and you’re out,” Casar told me.
“We know that violations of basic labor laws have drastically negative effects on families and neighborhoods,” he said. “We can start creating good, safe jobs again. Right now, the system has gone haywire…now it’s common practice for corners to be cut. We hope that certification can be used as a model for other cities and states.”
Setting a new standard
In south Austin, a new affordable housing development known as Arbor Terrace is getting ready to open its doors. The development, which will be exclusively for low-income residents, seniors and those living with disabilities, is a project of Foundation Communities, a local nonprofit working to provide affordable housing and support services for low-income families and residents.
Last fall, Workers Defense Project approached the organization about the possibility of partnering and while work was already underway on Arbor Terrace, “there was still an opportunity to make a difference,” said Sunshine Mathon, design and development director at nonprofit. Today, the affordable housing development is close to gaining certification.
“What Workers Defense Project brought to the project was direct oversight and direct interviews with construction workers on site, making sure that the things we say are happening are actually happening,” Mathon told me. “That’s been the most eye-opening part of the whole process. Even though our missions align, without their direct oversight there would have been workers who still would have slipped through the cracks.”
From the construction company’s perspective, what the Workers Defense Project brings to the table is a “level of certainty — they can have the best of intentions but you can’t have your eyes on everything all of the time,” Mathon noted. With the project on board, Foundation Communities was able to ensure — despite layers of subcontracting — that all workers on the Arbor Terrace site were covered by workers’ compensation insurance and were paid for overtime. Also, the average pay rate for a significant portion of workers was raised by $2 an hour.
“I think (this work) is pretty critical,” Mathon said. “A lot of construction workers aren’t in positions of power, i.e. they can be taken advantage of fairly easily. Most employers out there have good intentions…but there are enough folks where that’s not necessarily the case and that’s where this kind of oversight makes a huge difference.”
In addition to working directly with developers, Workers Defense Project has quite literally become part of Austin’s green building movement.
The Austin Energy Green Building program has been around for more than two decades — in fact, it was the first green building initiative in the country. For years, its focus on sustainability has been evolving and expanding, but recently “we really began thinking about the third leg of sustainability — the people part, the social equity part,” said Richard Morgan, green building and emerging technologies manager at Austin Energy. So when the Workers Defense Project approached Austin Energy in 2011 about partnering it was a “perfect way for us to expand our mission on sustainability,” Morgan said.
Now, developers can earn a point toward their green building rating if they adhere to the Worker Defense Project’s Premier Community Builders agreement. Morgan said Austin Energy introduces the opportunity to all commercial and large multifamily developers that apply to participate in the Austin Energy Green Building program. The effort has the potential to raise safety and wage standards for thousands of construction workers: Over the last four years, Austin Energy has rated about 25 large commercial projects each year and about six multifamily projects each year, Morgan said.
“We think Workers Defense Project is doing great work and we’re proud to be associated with them,” he said.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for a decade.