Austin's Construction Ban Lifted, but Will Workers Be Safe?

COVID-19 remains a hazard as thousands return to job sites

The future Austin FC stadium at McKalla Place, the day before Austin's ban on construction was overruled by Gov. Abbott. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Construction around Austin has resumed following an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott that went into effect Thursday, April 2, and overruled a portion of Austin’s local “stay home, work safe” orders that prohibited most forms of commercial construction.

The local shelter-in-place orders to combat the spread of COVID-19 had only allowed some projects that were not considered “critical infrastructure” (those supporting public health, safety, and essential government activity, among them) to proceed, and even then, each project would have to be approved by a committee of various city departments, with no avenue for appeal.

Abbott’s order undoes many of those restrictions, broadly allowing residential and commercial building to continue throughout the state. Abbott’s statewide order is based on guidance outlined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in the “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce” advisory list, which details what kind of jobs should continue amid increasingly restrictive social distancing measures. In addition to allowing residential construction needed to “ensure additional units can be made available to combat the nation’s existing housing supply shortage,” (i.e., all of them), the CISA list allows any kind of construction of commercial or critical infrastructure to continue.

Before Abbott’s order, the Real Estate Council of Austin blasted the local orders, saying they would “devastate construction workers and small businesses.” In a statement issued on Thursday, RECA Board Chair Peter Cesaro said, “Within a commercial construction context, RECA does believe that the Governor’s reference to CISA guidelines certainly provides more flexibility than did orders previously issued by the City of Austin and Travis County.”

Mayor Steve Adler agrees, saying in a press release sent late Thursday evening that “The Governor’s Order trumps the city and allows construction to proceed.” However, safety restrictions imposed on workplaces under the local orders will continue to apply to construction sites.

Under those safety measures, construction sites will have to adhere to the same social distancing measures required in any facility considered essential and still operating. Job sites will also need to include at least one hand washing station with soap or hand sanitizer for every 15 crew members, ensure shared tools and work spaces are disinfected regularly, and conduct health screenings every day before work begins.

Site managers are required to keep a log of each worker each day, with contact info to help with contact tracing should someone at the site contract the virus. If a crew member is confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, they must be immediately sent home.

But some local construction workers say these measures are unworkable, in reality, and the likelihood that they would be enforced at most job sites is laughable. Mike King, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520, told us that most job sites – even the larger ones – require “shoulder-to-shoulder” working conditions. People huddle together to review blueprints, congregate during lunch, and share the same bathroom facilities which are not regularly sanitized, all of which make the working conditions even more hazardous during a pandemic.

“Another part of the problem is that the threat isn’t really real to most workers,” King told us. “They may not see bodies dropping around them, so there’s a denial attitude out there, but it is going to cost lives if people stay on the job.”

Overall, King said, it’s a “mixed bag” even among Austin’s union electricians (IBEW accounts for about 10% of electrical work done in Austin) on whether or not they should stay home to protect their own health and the health of their community, or continue to show up to work each day.

And for the undocumented immigrants who fill out crews at every job site, they will have no choice. Unemployment benefits are not available to undocumented workers, so a choice to stay home from work is effectively choosing to sacrifice income entirely.

More and more, IBEW workers are taking voluntary layoffs so they can stay home and file for unemployment; but there is uncertainty in that route, too. Ryan Pollock, an IBEW member, decided last week to stay home after becoming frustrated with the unsafe conditions at his work site.

He recalled unclean restroom facilities, and hand washing stations that frequently did not work. The final straw for him was working in a tight, 11x11-foot room, with five other guys. Only two had masks, and they weren’t even covering their faces – “it was hot in the room, and they told me wearing the masks was uncomfortable,” Pollock said.

Pollock’s wife is immunocompromised, so he has been especially vigilant in shielding himself from exposure to the coronavirus. “I went into a fight or flight mode,” Pollock told us, telling us how the situation felt threatening because of his wife’s health condition.

Leaving the job is going to be a major loss of income for Pollock. He was able to successfully file for unemployment, but the Texas Workforce Commission has become overwhelmed with claims amid unprecedented demand throughout the state. Pollock’s wife has tried, unsuccessfully, to file for over a week.

Still, Pollock doesn't have any doubts about leaving the job site. “I know it was the right decision,” he said. “It could end up costing me all my savings, but it’s not worth spreading this disease to my community and putting my wife in more danger.”

Sean Forkner, president of the Austin Carpenters Union Local 1266, told us that the union’s 400 carpenters are “overwhelmingly” choosing to stay on the job. He pointed to safety training and COVID-19 preparedness that members have undergone, such as how to properly use personal protective equipment, as reason why many are choosing to stay on the job.

“Our members understand their role in keeping the economy moving forward,” Forkner said, “both to support their families and to support the city. They are confident in the safety training they’ve tested and certified in to protect them, their fellow workers, and the jobsite environment.”

But it's difficult to gauge the fear of COVID-19 among the thousands of tradespeople that make job sites around the city function. Emily Timm, co-executive director of the Workers Defense Project, said Abbott’s order put “profit over public health” and put the lives of construction workers at risk. The increased safety measures required by the city are a good protection, she noted, but only if rigorously enforced. She encouraged employers to designate a “COVID-19 safety monitor” at each site responsible for enforcing the measures, because expecting the city’s code enforcement to do it at every job site is unrealistic.

Undoubtedly, many construction workers will continue to show up at job sites until they are no longer able or allowed to, whether or not proper social distancing measures are observed. That’s been the biggest frustration for King, the IBEW president. His hope was that the government would intervene to help protect construction workers by requiring them to stay home. Although his union members have the right to stay home from work if they feel their job site is unsafe, King knows he represents just a small slice of electricians in the city, and they alone don’t have the muscle to sway the industry.

“I’m heartbroken over Abbott’s decision to open the door to almost any construction,” King said. “My fear is the only way he’s going to see that he made the wrong decision is through a mass outbreak among workers.”

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coronavirus, COVID-19, stay home work safe, shelter in place, construction ban, Real Estate Council of Austin, Workers Defense Project, IBEW, Carpenters Union

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