Bill of the Week: Building a Better Texas
Construction is big business in Texas. But it's also a dangerous and, at times, underhanded industry plagued by worker injuries and widespread tax fraud. Looking at the results of a groundbreaking report on the state of the construction industry in Texas released this week, it looks like it's also an industry in dire need of legislative reforms.
According to the new study – a yearlong project by the Workers Defense Project and faculty from the University of Texas, UT School of Public Health in Houston, and the University of Illinois at Chicago – 950,000 people work in Texas' construction industry; indeed, Texas is responsible for 10% of all U.S. construction output and accounts for $1 of every $20 generated by the Texas economy. Yet the state has the highest rate of workers killed in construction accidents, and 20% of all construction workers say they've sustained an injury at work requiring medical attention. When you consider the fact that 61% of the nearly 1,200 construction workers surveyed for the study report never having received basic on-the-job safety training, that's hardly a shock.
Moreover, over 50% of workers earn poverty-level wages, and 22% have been denied pay for work already done. Over 50% have been denied overtime pay, 41% have been victims of payroll fraud, and 32% say they've been retaliated against for reporting fraud – fraud that has cost Texas taxpayers some $54.5 million in lost unemployment insurance revenue and hundreds of millions more in federal income tax. Having unscrupulous construction businesses in the market "undermines responsible businesses ... that play by the rules," said WDP policy analyst Emily Timm at a Jan. 29 press conference. Indeed, payroll fraud is a "cancer" in the industry that leaves some 300,000 construction workers off the books – paid by cash or personal check, by employers who don't pay payroll taxes and leave workers vulnerable, and uncovered by workers' comp in the case of injuries – said Stan Marek, CEO of Marek Brothers Systems, a statewide specialty subcontractor. Employers that skirt the law make it hard for law abiding employers to stay in the business. It's time, said Marek, for that to end.
With these sobering facts in mind, the WDP has compiled a list of legislative reforms that it says would ensure safer working conditions, and level the playing field for honest employers. SB 167, by Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, would require safety training for employees in all government-funded construction projects, and HB 475, by Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, would require construction employers to provide workers' comp coverage. Beaumont Dem Rep. Joe Deshotel's HB 372 would beef up investigations of and penalties for payroll fraud; and HB 298 by Austin Dem Rep. Eddie Rodriguez would protect workers who report wage theft from being retaliated against by their employers. See the complete WDP report online with this story at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.
Check out all the latest from the 83rd legislative session at Legeland: austinchronicle.com/legeland.