Workers Defense Project

Workers who built two west campus apartment complexes claim they were mistreated while working on the projects. The workers say they were not given breaks, water or overtime pay.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Of the three West Campus apartment complexes that opened to more than 1,000 students this fall, at least two were built by construction workers who claimed they were mistreated.

Documents obtained from the City of Austin show complaints have been filed against the contractors who oversaw construction of 2400 Nueces and The Callaway House for lack of rest and water breaks for construction workers. Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit that strives to represent mistreated workers in Texas, has also taken legal action against owners of The Callaway House twice this year after learning of unpaid wages for construction workers who worked on the private off-campus dorm. 

The City of Austin received a complaint, regarding breaks, against the construction project at the 2400 Nueces site. Construction workers who built the property have claimed they were not given rest or water breaks during day-long shifts of work. While Texas does not require breaks at the state level, a City of Austin ordinance requires a 10-minute rest break for every four hours on the job.

A construction worker, who worked on 2400 Nueces and spoke to The Daily Texan on the condition of anonymity, said he was mistreated in several ways while working on the project.

Despite the conditions and not receiving overtime pay, the worker said he could not quit because he had to provide for his family and the work at 2400 Nueces was the only job he could get at the time.

Hensel Phelps, the general contractor for the project, did not return a request for comment, but city records show an inspector visited the site in response to the complaint filed in July 2012 and took pictures of rest stations, water coolers and the required city-issued signage about the policy. 

The land 2400 Nueces was built on is leased by UT to a private college student housing developer.

Around the same time the rest breaks complaint was filed, a construction worker at 2400 Nueces fell from the sixth floor injuring himself and the two other workers he fell on. They were all treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. 

The worker interviewed by The Daily Texan — who was not one of the workers who fell — said he and other construction workers were not given any kind of health insurance or compensation while working on the site.

Greg Casar, a business liaison representative for Workers Defense Project, compared Texas’ construction industry to doping in sports.

“When it is so competitive, and there is really no enforcement or oversight, then it creates an incentive for everybody to cheat,” Casar said.

Texas is one of the nation’s most robust states for construction, with more than 950,000 construction workers in the state, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Accompanying this massive amount of construction work is limited state government oversight and regulation. Unlike California and other states with large construction industries, Texas does not require breaks for workers or compensation for on-the-job injuries. The state also has no task force in place to monitor workplace fraud.

The allegations made by workers in West Campus are consistent with statewide worker mistreatment issues discussed in a report by UT.

Earlier this year, UT faculty — in partnership with Workers Defense Project and faculty from the University of Illinois at Chicago — released Build a Better Texas, a report that examined the construction industry in Texas. The report found 39 percent of workers surveyed said they did not receive rest breaks. Another issue many construction workers face is misclassification as contractors, because of which workers are often not paid for overtime, forced to supply their own safety equipment and are not given insurance.

Workers Defense Project alleges this occurs at most private construction projects like 2400 Nueces.

“The idea is you are completely on your own,” Casar said. “It totally severs any level of responsibility anybody has to that worker.” 

Worker misclassification, or workplace fraud, is illegal nationwide but the way individual states handle and investigate these instances varies greatly. About 41 percent of workers surveyed said they were victims of workplace fraud, according to Build a Better Texas.

Further complicating the situation is the distant relationship between general contractors and construction workers, who are often hired and supervised by subcontractors.

“It’s not the general contractors that are cheating,” Casar said. “They have a direct working relationship at the developer level, and aren’t overseeing the labor at any phase. If you just build a building, and don’t ask questions, that’s what you get.”

In July, Workers Defense Project filed a lien — a legal maneuver that prevents the owners from selling the property and could lead to further legal action — against American Campus Communities, the owner of The Callaway House, after construction workers who worked on the project claimed $36,800 in unpaid wages. Earlier this week, The Callaway House’s general contractor, Harvey-Cleary, promised to pay the unpaid wages following the lien.

This is the second time Workers Defense Project has successfully advocated for unpaid workers against the owners of The Callaway House. In April, workers won a claim of more than $24,000 in unpaid wages. 

Gina Cowart, vice president of investor relations and corporate marketing at American Campus Communities, said the company had instructed Harvey-Cleary to pay the workers for the full amount of unpaid wages. American Campus Communities is “rigorous” in paying its contractors and service providers, Cowart said.

“We do not believe we have been accurately portrayed by Workers Defense Project communications,” Cowart said in a statement. “However, we do respect the role they played in bringing the matter to our attention to foster resolution.”

Almost a quarter of construction workers surveyed by Build a Better Texas reported they had previously been denied wages.

The documents obtained from the city also revealed a complaint filed in May against The Callaway House construction project for violating the ordinance that requires rest breaks on construction sites.

City records show an inspector visited the site after the complaint and found the required city-issued signage about the policy was posted at the site. The inspector also reminded the management of the ordinance. 

Harvey-Cleary did not return a request for comment. 

A construction worker ovesees several other workers at a construction site in West Campus Monday afternoon. A lack of monitoring of UT construction sites illustrates just one of the issues regarding labor rights and unjust working conditions. 

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Dave Dixon, executive director of program management for UT’s Office of Facilities Planning & Construction, said he saw no pressing demand for outside monitoring of University construction sites, but was open to the possibility.

Workers Defense Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers, extended the offer in a protest on April 19. The protest addressed roughly $9,000 in then-unpaid wages from a UT-San Antonio construction project. The subcontractor of Pillar Construction has not yet paid these wages to its workers.

“[Problems with construction workers] is a plague that has basically crept over all the Texas construction industry,” said Workers Defense Project business liaison Gregorio Casar. “Specifically with universities, we see that student housing has been built with unjust working conditions.”

Casar mainly addressed off-campus development such as 2400 Nueces, where a fall injured three workers after Workers Defense Project had received multiple safety complaints from the site. However, he said UT should use its role as a community leader to encourage change in Texas.

Casar pointed to a report published by Workers Defense Project in partnership with UT’s Community Engagement Center, which found one in five workers will be hospitalized in their career.

Patricia Zavala, workplace justice coordinator of Workers Defense Project, said the key to preventing abuse is monitoring.

“We want to see them work with their builders and contractors,” Zavala said.

Zavala said Workers Defense Project monitors build relationships with workers so they feel comfortable coming to them with pay and safety issues.

However, Dixon said the UT System already makes considerable efforts to ensure the general contractors it hires have sound practices.

“We only have maybe 10 to 20 percent of the evaluation [of a firm] based on cost,” Dixon said.

Dixon said the process of hiring a general contractor includes asking them to submit safety and execution plans for a project.

This vetting process, according to Dixon, enables the University to out-compete comparable institutions on its safety record. Office of Facilities Planning and Construction manages construction projects with a reported incident rate 44 percent lower than the national average. Dixon claimed its rate compares even more favorably with large public institutions.

Dixon said this is not only because of the selection process, but comes from UT’s analysis of accidents and near-accidents, and an award program it has set up for safe construction projects. Dixon said checkups on construction sites by OFPC inspectors also help ensure everything stays on track.

“My inspectors would know basically all of the foremen and superintendents,” Dixon said. “Our inspectors are clearly identified in the field as being the guys in charge ... It would be unreasonable to expect an inspector to know every [one of the 200 to 300] craft labor workers on a project.”

Still, he said he is happy to reach out to Workers Defense Project for their monitoring services.

“Anything they can do to add to that particular effort toward [safety] is something I would fully endorse,” Dixon said.

Printed on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 as: Group defends workers' pay

This article was corrected after its original posting. Pillar Construction has not yet paid the workers' unpaid wages as it relates to the UT-San Antonio construction.