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. 

INDIANAPOLIS — A federal inspector found two strains of salmonella and unclean conditions at an Indiana cantaloupe farm’s fruit-packing plant during inspections prompted by a deadly outbreak linked to the farm’s melons.

The Food and Drug Administration’s report on the mid-August inspections at Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. shows an inspector found improperly cleaned and apparently rusted and corroded equipment. The inspector also found what appeared to be algae growing in standing water beneath conveyer belts at the Owensville, Ind., plant, the report said.

Two strains of salmonella were found on cantaloupes in the farm’s fields and on surfaces throughout the packing building located about 20 miles north of Evansville in southwestern Indiana, according to the report, which was posted Tuesday night on the FDA’s website.

One salmonella strain was found on cantaloupes that had been processed in the building and boxed, according to the inspector, who wrote that she saw “indications of poor sanitary practices demonstrating contamination” in the fruit-packing building.

On Aug. 22, about a week after the FDA inspections, Chamberlain Farm Produce announced it had voluntarily recalled all of its cantaloupes due to concerns that some might be tainted with salmonella. Six days later, the FDA disclosed that genetic testing on salmonella collected at the farm matched the “DNA fingerprint” of the salmonella strain responsible for this summer’s outbreak, making it a source for at least some of the bacteria.

FDA spokeswoman Carla Daniels said Wednesday that the agency is still investigating, but the Indiana farm is the only farm that’s been linked to the salmonella outbreak to date.

The outbreak sickened at least 270 people in 26 states and killed three people in Kentucky, according to the FDA. The first cases were reported in July, and the FDA sent its last update on the outbreak Sept. 13.

Gary Zhao, an attorney for Chamberlain Farm Produce, said in a statement Wednesday that the farm has been cooperating fully with FDA officials.

“While we acknowledge that the FDA report notes certain conditions allegedly observed at Chamberlain Farm, there is nothing in the report to indicate the conditions are a source of or contributed to any reported illnesses,” Zhao said.

The Indiana farm last month pulled its watermelons from the market after salmonella was found on some of those fruits, but the farm’s attorney has said that no illnesses had been linked to any of
its watermelons.

One food safety advocate said she was disappointed but not surprised by the FDA’s inspection report, which also found that farm managers were not monitoring the level of chlorine in a water-filled tank that’s part of the cantaloupe processing line and had no documentation of the sanitizer’s past use.

WASHINGTON — The General Services Administration inspector general said Monday that he’s investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as a central figure in a GSA spending scandal asserted his right to remain silent at a congressional hearing.

Inspector general Brian Miller, responding to a question at the hearing, said, “We do have other ongoing investigations, including all sorts of improprieties, including bribes, including possible kickbacks.”

Jeffrey Neely, who asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege before the committee, has been placed on leave as a regional executive in Western states.

Neely, summoned before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, could face a criminal investigation by the Justice Department — where his case was referred by the inspector general.

Neely was largely responsible for an $823,000 Las Vegas conference in 2010 that was the focus of Miller’s report. Three other congressional committees also are looking at the conference spending and a culture of waste at the agency in charge of federal buildings and supplies

“Mr. Chairman, on advice of counsel I decline to answer based on my constitutional privilege,” Neely said in response to questions from chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. The conference was the subject of a highly critical report by Miller issued on April 2. Taxpayers picked up the tab for a clown, a mind-reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise.

Martha Johnson, who resigned as chief of the agency after the inspector general’s report was issued this month, said the Western Regions Conference “had evolved into a raucous, extravagant, arrogant, self-congratulatory event.”

Johnson, whom lawmakers accused of sitting on the findings for 11 months after receiving an interim briefing from the inspector general, apologized “to the American people for the entire situation.

“As the head of the agency, I am responsible. I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.”

Previously, Neely had told inspector general investigators that a $2,700 party he threw in his Las Vegas hotel suite was an employee-awards event, according to a transcript of the interview.

“This is an award recognition ceremony ....” Neely insisted to an internal investigator. “That’s what this was. That’s...not a Neely party right. I was in a suite that wasn’t even mine.”

The investigator then confronted Neely with his email saying that he and his wife “are hosting a party in our loft room. There will be wine and beer and some munchies....” There was no mention of awards.When Neely insisted again it was an awards event, the skeptical investigator told him, “You realize how this looks?”

“I get it that it looks funny,” Neely said.

The inspector general has referred Neely to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, according to a congressional committee official who was not authorized to be quoted by name on the subject.

It was not clear what the department was asked to investigate.

Neely, on leave as regional commissioner of the Public Buildings Service for the Pacific Rim, was largely responsible for the Las Vegas conference.

The Oversight Committees released internal memos that showed GSA officials debated last year whether to give Neely a bonus for his job performance. The officials were aware at the time that the inspector general was investigating the conference spending.

The now-resigned GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, granted Neely a $9,000 bonus over the objection of Deputy Administrator Susan Brita.

Brita wrote in a November 2011 email, that “based on what we know already” about the conference and a questionable awards program, “I would not recommend a bonus.”

Johnson wrote in an email, “yes on a bonus” in part because Neely had to serve in an acting capacity “forever and a day.”

Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 as: Ex-GSA chief pleads fifth on wasting money