Texas Construction Climate and Occupational Safety

Texas Construction Workers Face Wage Theft and Safety HazardsTexas Construction is booming and has been for many years. While the state receives an economic boost, however, workers are more and more being abused and neglected. The construction industry in Texas can provide means for many workers to have continued, stable employment, but at what cost?

In twelve of the last fifteen years, Texas has led the nation in the number of occupational fatalities. Even if there is an adjustment for population, Texas still ranks 17th in the nation. California, New York and Florida all rank lower.

Part of this dubious distinction comes as a result of a booming Texas economy that has not only kept its own residents employed, but also has drawn workers from other states to sustainable jobs that have been made in the state. The surge of jobs, unfortunately, have been in high safety-risk jobs such as construction, trucking and the petroleum industry (oil and gas production).

Construction alone is in excess of $55 billion a year as a growing industry in the Lone Star State. The influx of new residents, along with an increasing immigrant labor pool has caused a decline in wages to near poverty levels. Accident and wage fraud are rampant.  State reports show that there are over 1 million construction workers employed, but only half of them are documented. Yet, many have been in the U.S. for many years. Because many workers are undocumented, construction companies pay only pennies on the dollar to these workers with the veiled threat of notifying immigration officials. Only when the workers go to the Texas Workforce Commission, do they receive some semblance of justice.

Texas Construction and Wage Theft

Since 2002, the Workers Defense Project, located in the Texas state capitol, Austin, has been studying and tracking the climate of the State’s workers and addressing concerns in the after of wage theft. According to the groups spokesman, Cristina Tzintzun, wages have fallen for construction workers to well under minimum wage status. This started during the economic collapse of 2008. An National Public Radio article quoted Ms. Tzintzun regarding the abuse, “”Ninety percent of the people who come to our organization have come because they’ve been robbed of their wages.” The WDP and the the University of Texas engaged in a cooperative study of the construction work climate in 2013. The study lasted for over a year and the results were eye-opening. Cheated workers kept coming back for work. Wages varied from a low of $4 per hour to a high of $5 for many. A very high percentage were classified as “sub-contractors”, so that companies don’t have to pay federal income taxes or social security. In many cases this is against Texas work law. “Our estimation is that there’s $1.6 billion being lost in federal income taxes just from Texas alone,” says Tzintzun. The report estimates that $7 billion in wages from nearly 400,000 illegally classified construction workers is going unreported in Texas each year, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue lost owing to institutionalized statewide payroll fraud. This problem is prevalent in local, private and even State-sponsored construction projects.

Texas Construction and the Lack of Safety Conscience

In addition to wage theft and fraud, the overall safety environment in Texas lacks emphasis and control. Texas has never bothered to put together an OSHA State Plan that would set forth its own regulatory administration to oversee the compliance with federal OSHA standards. Over half the States in the country have such program or have enacted specific legislation to mandate compliance for safety training and education. While all Texas companies fall under OSHA regulations and guidelines, the enforcement is another story. In a July 22 article appearing in the Texas Tribune, David Michaels head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was stright and direct to the point regarding the lax safety efforts in the state’s construction industry in particular, saying, “workers are not being given adequate protection” on job sites and in the state’s safety net.”

Texas is the ONLY State in the union that does NOT require workers to carry Workman’s Compensation Insurance. This means that hospitals and taxpayers usually end up shouldering the cost when uncovered construction workers are hurt. While some companies do provide this (less than 40%), it is estimated that over a half a million workers are not covered at all. There are no regulations or guidelines for mandatory training or education. OSHA attempts to bridge the gap with their Outreach Safety Training program which promotes essential OSHA safety training in the areas of fall arrest, electrocution, caught between (crushing), and other basic safety principles. The training is provided through online, computer-based training. Construction workers have their own curriculum by enrolling in OSHA Construction Training.

Since Texas has no OSHA State Plan, or specific legislation for the guidance of safety standards, what regulation that does exist falls to the Texas Department of Insurance, the Division of Workers’ Compensation. The Workers’ Compensation Division’s OSHCON Department provides workplace safety and health consultations to Texas employers, including free OSHA compliance assistance. Yet, there is little progress that has been made in reducing deaths in the State over the years. The previously mentioned WDP-UT study found that Lone Star construction workers died at twice the rate (10.7 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2010) of those in California (5.2).  The U.S. national average was 8.8 per 100,000 deaths. One in five Texas Construction workers will require hospitalization due to lax or non-existent safety measures.

Summary: Texas Construction In Need of Stricter Safety Laws

While the Texas Construction industry is booming, the workers in that industry are being abused. The risk-reward proposition may seem beneficial, but the documented realities of wage theft, payroll fraud, increased fatalities and lack of safety concern has caused the State to repeatedly find its way to the top of industry fatalities and safety violations. Construction companies need to step up and put more emphasis on basic essential safety training and education. All companies in the United States are required to provide a safe environment for it’s employees and related workers based on the OSHA General Duty Clause.  All OSHA regulations, guidelines, health standards and rules apply to every company, no matter how small and no matter if the hired worker is deemed an employee or sub-contractor. Companies in violation of the OSH Act of 1970, are subject to severe fines. Those fines dramatically increase if the violations are willful, or the company is a repeat offender.