No need for outside monitoring of construction sites, says UT facilities program director

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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.