Who's Afraid of Accountability?
Gables Residential balks at WDP's contracting standards
For years, Workers Defense Project has received complaints about unsafe working conditions and wage theft at Gables Residential-owned projects. The Atlanta-based developer has built several large-scale projects in the Austin area, including the "luxurious Gables Park Plaza ... nestled between Austin's Downtown and Lady Bird Lake," and the Gables Park Tower, "Austin's newest and favorite boutique living experience."
In 2009, Filemon Salas worked on Gables Park Plaza. He told WDP, "I saw several co-workers faint because they were made to work in 100-110 degree heat without water. We also worked 10- to 12-hour days without being paid overtime."
Heriberto Mendoza worked as a painter at Gables Park Tower earlier this year. "There have been unsafe working conditions at the site," he says. "I've seen the cleaning crew working on the 10th floor cleaning the balcony windows on six-foot ladders with no harnesses or safety equipment. This was happening even during the rain when it was slippery and wet outside. They could have easily fallen backwards to their deaths." And as reported previously ("Workers Protest Gables," Nov. 18), eight other painters who worked at Gables Park Tower are claiming they're owed $8,500 in unpaid overtime.
However, according to a written statement by Gables Residential VP Gigi Giannoni, the workers' allegations of wage theft "are the responsibility of the general contractor" – although Gables "prides itself in its continued commitment to overall worker safety and fair wages companywide. We are in discussions with Andres Construction [the general contractor at Gables Park Tower] to expedite any outstanding claims that are viable and substantiated by the Department of Labor."
WDP believes that these kinds of violations can, in fact, be prevented by project developers. WDP's Better Builder Program requires participating companies and their contractors and subcontractors to provide safety training and workers' compensation, agree to a wage floor and local hiring quotas, and allow the WDP to monitor their compliance. Despite a persistent, vocal campaign by WDP and its worker members, Gables has thus far declined to sign on to the program.
Gabriela Hybel, WDP communications director, won't speculate as to why Gables is reluctant to join the program, but said that WDP had decided to publicly ask Gables to "Build It Better," because of the various complaints WDP members and their fellow workers had about Gables-owned sites. Hybel added that when a developer signs on, they "earn trust with consumers and stakeholders," and show their subcontractors that they need to follow a certain standard. Since contractors and subcontractors usually compete for jobs with bids, "it's not fair to businesses who are paying honest pay and following all the standards," Hybel explained. A subcontractor can submit a lower bid on a project when it doesn't have to factor in overtime pay or workers' comp.
For Floyd Akers, executive director of Pflugerville Community Development Corporation, becoming part of the Better Builder Program has been beneficial. He pointed out that both the company and many of the workers on its sites are part of the Pflugerville community. "We need to be a rising tide that lifts all boats," he said. Akers doesn't think the wage floor affects costs, because most construction workers won't work for less than $11 an hour anyway. It can be difficult for a company to confirm that its subs pay their workers, and WDP's audits alleviate that problem. For instance, WDP was able to identify and resolve 23 cases of wage theft while monitoring Impact Way at 130 Commerce Center.
Akers' only hesitation in signing on to the program was the workers' comp requirement. He didn't believe it was necessary to require workers' comp if a business carries private liability insurance. For some small businesses, workers' comp can be prohibitively expensive, argued Akers, and that requirement might have made it harder for him to hire minority-owned businesses. When he explained his position to WDP, both sides agreed to change the language of PCDC's contract to require that all contractors and subs carry workers' comp or private liability insurance.
Since PCDC implemented the Better Builder program, Akers has been gratified to see that more of the workers on his sites are receiving safety training that they never had before. Workers are "paid a fair wage and able to work in the safest manner possible," he said.
A previous version of this article erronously named Heriberto Mendoza as one of the eight painters claiming they're owed $8,500 in overtime, and failed to specify that the WDP monitored Impact Way at 130 Commerce. The Chronicle regrets the errors.