by Kim Krisberg
Texas may boast a booming construction sector, but a deeper look reveals an industry fraught with wage theft, payroll fraud, frighteningly lax safety standards, and preventable injury and death. In reality, worker advocates say such conditions are far from the exception — instead, they’ve become the norm.
Such conditions were chronicled in a new in-depth report released earlier this week. Researchers, who surveyed nearly 1,200 construction workers in Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Austin and El Paso, found that one in five construction workers experienced a workplace injury that required medical attention and 60 percent never received basic safety training. In fact, while construction workers account for only 6 percent of the state’s workforce, they make up nearly 20 percent of work-related uncompensated care costs in Texas emergency rooms. The report, titled “Build A Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State” and released by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, is the most comprehensive of its kind.
Emily Timm, policy analyst at Workers Defense Project, told me that during the project’s 10 years of assisting low-wage and vulnerable workers, the vast majority of cases come from the construction industry. So, the report’s findings weren’t a complete surprise. Still, Timm said “it continues to be shocking just how common injuries are and just how little safety training workers are provided.”
“The construction industry nationally definitely faces challenges…but I do think that Texas has a particularly bad situation,” she said.
In the report’s introduction, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall writes:
Texas has the most dangerous construction industry in the United States. Between 2007 and 2011, 585 Texas construction workers died from workplace injuries, compared with 299 in California, which had a larger construction work force. And between 2003 and 2010, construction accounted for about 6% of the Texas work force, but 26% of workplace fatalities. Given these hazards, it is surprising that Texas is the only state that does not require employers to provide workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries. Texas also lacks a state OSHA law to supplement the federal OSHA program and provides only one OSHA inspector per 103,899 workers, compared with 1 per 52,416 in California, which (along with 20 other states and Puerto Rico) does have a state OSHA law.
According to the report, Texas is home to one of the largest construction industries in the country, growing by nearly 25 percent between 1997 and 2010. In 2011, Texas’ growth accounted for 16 percent of all new housing starts in the nation — that’s more than Florida and California put together. In addition, report authors Timm, Amy Price and Cristina Tzintzún noted that one out of every 13 Texas residents works in construction, a field home to nearly 1,000,000 workers overall.
However, workers are hardly getting their fair share of the building boom, often putting their lives and health on the line for impoverished wages — if they get paid at all.
The price of lax oversight
On the economic front, the report found that:
- More than half of workers surveyed said they earn poverty-level wages and had difficulty supporting their families.
- More than 20 percent said they did not get paid for their work, and half reported not receiving overtime pay.
- About 41 percent experienced payroll fraud, were misclassified as independent contractors or paid off the books — what Timm described as an “underground economy.”
Such practices not only impact workers and their families, but the much larger community as well. Researchers found that wage theft among construction workers results in an estimated $117 million in lost wages and $8.8 million in lost sales tax revenue. Payroll fraud, such as paying workers in cash, results in more than $54 million in lost unemployment insurance tax revenue and millions more in federal income taxes. Researchers noted that by not paying workers a fair and livable wage and by not carrying workers compensation, many Texas construction workers have no choice but to turn to public safety net programs. (This is despite the fact many developers receive big tax breaks to move into Texas and yet their workers must turn to public assistance programs to survive.)
“There’s a huge cost to Texas and those costs are being passed on directly to Texas consumers,” Timm said. “If any public dollars are going toward construction, we want to make sure we’re creating good, safe jobs that will lead to construction workers actually being able to support their families.”
On the worker health and safety front, the report found that Texas construction workers are more than four times more likely to die on the job than the average Texas worker. And even though employers are legally required to provide their workers with safety equipment, about 30 percent of workers said they must supply their own equipment or simply go without the sometimes life-saving gear. Sixty percent of Texas construction workers said they never received OSHA safety training, 39 percent said they received no rest breaks, and 59 percent said their employer didn’t provide drinking water.
Here are just a couple safety stories told in the report:
In June 2012, Luis Rodriguez was pouring concrete on a large commercial construction project in Austin. “It was over 100 degrees working on the concrete. We were out there for ten hours a day with no shade, no water, no breaks,” he recalled. Luis and several coworkers complained to their supervisors that they were not receiving rest breaks and drinking water in violation of an Austin city ordinance and federal OSHA requirements.
After Luis’ employer failed to address the problem, he filed a complaint with OSHA, and inspectors mandated that the company put up shade, provide water, and allow the workers to take rest breaks in accordance with city policy. “After OSHA came, we were able to work better because we weren’t overheating, but when we got close to our deadline, the company started making us work through our breaks again. It made the last few weeks of the job unbearable.”
In 2010, Santiago Arias was working on a Houston commercial construction site installing insulation systems. He recalled: “There were no precautions there, nothing. We were working on a roof. There were stones on the ground… there were no harnesses or nothing. It was dangerous work…When I fell, I wasn’t so lucky. I fell on top of some iron planks. I landed on my back.” Santiago was paralyzed from the neck down.
Santiago’s employer didn’t have workers’ compensation. Without benefits to make up for his lost income, his family was devastated. His daughter, who had been studying to go to college, was forced to drop out of school in order to support the family and help pay for Santiago’s medical bills. Santiago’s wife had to give up her job in order to stay home and take care of him. Because he doesn’t have workers’ compensation to pay for rehabilitative services, Santiago has not received the full level of therapy he needs to improve. He found an attorney to take his case, but to date, Santiago and his family have not received compensation from Santiago’s employer, a small company with few assets.
Timm said Texas is at a “pivotal moment to take action,” noting that there are “simple, affordable ways to implement some of these changes to have an impact for workers and create a culture of safety in Texas.” For example, the report notes that after the city of Austin passed a 2010 ordinance requiring OSHA safety training on publicly funded construction sites, safety training rates went up by 14 percent.
“In a competitive industry like construction, it’s difficult for companies that play by the rules to compete,” Timm said. “But I do think there’s some great leadership emerging in the industry that’s saying we need to think about how to make this industry sustainable in the long term.”
For a copy of the Workers Defense Project report, visit http://www.workersdefense.org/build-a-better-texas-report.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for the last decade.