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Austin School District Should Follow Houston ISD’s Progress on Construction Jobs

The Austin School Board recently voted to adopt Davis-Bacon federal wage rates on construction of facilities under the district's new $490 million bond package.  While some have hailed this as a historic step, it is seen by many as merely a short-term fix for attracting workers into the skilled trades.  In short: more needs to be done.

After a hot debate, the board narrowly voted 5 to 4 to adopt Davis-Bacon wage rates. The crowd in the board room erupted into applause. It's good news for some, but not for all. As public radio in Austin pointed out, pay will go up for those in trades like electricians and security technicians, but others like general laborers will actually see their wages go down to the point where they will be earning less than $8 an hour.

Trustee Cheryl Bradley joined with three others in voting against Davis-Bacon wage rates, arguing that it made no sense.  “You’re not going to be buying food for your family on $7.75 an hour,” Bradley said.  “You’re not going to be paying rent.  You will be on government subsidy.”

Labor advocates realize that adoption of Davis-Bacon wage rates won't get every worker to the income level needed to live a quality life in Austin.  That's why Stephanie Gharakhanian, Research and Policy Director with the Workers Defense Project, and others told the board that they should also consider including a minimum hourly rate of $11 an hour for construction workers.

In an attempt to offer broader protections for workers and create quality jobs, Associated General Contractors of Austin President Phil Thoden has urged the AISD board to “get to the heart of problems facing many craft workers.”  To do that, he said they should do these three things:

  1. Require 10-Hour OSHA training for workers on all AISD projects, and 30-hour OSHA training for workforce supervisors.
  2. Require workers’ compensation insurance for all workers on AISD projects.
  3. Require hourly pay – including employment taxes and overtime – for all workers on AISD projects.

“These three provisions address many of the concerns expressed by industry critics and are part of the Construction Career Collaborative (also known as C3) endorsed by an alliance of socially responsible owners, contractors, and specialty contractors to address the issues facing the craft worker,” Thoden said.  You can find much more about C3 in Construction Citizen’s coverage of the organization.

Meantime, the Houston Independent School District is already making progress on this front with its new Labor Compliance Program.  As Construction Citizen blogger Daryl Samuels wrote:

“The objective of the Labor Compliance Program (LCP) is to build the highest quality schools safely, on time, within budget, and with the best construction workers.  HISD’s Labor Compliance Program (LCP) helps ensure a level playing field and protects workers by reviewing certified payrolls, monitoring job sites, interviewing workers, providing certified payroll training and sponsoring community job fairs.

“The HISD LCP is fueled by Texas Labor Code 2258 that mandates that all contractors on state-funded projects properly classify workers, pay prevailing wages, deduct appropriate taxes, and report in a timely manner.  Fines can be levied for willful non-compliance with those standards.  This program lets the districts stabilize, mobilize, and energize its workforce to help guarantee quality performance, product, and profit.

“The HISD Labor Compliance Program must, can, and will work!”

Who would have thought the Houston school district could do something more progressive than the Austin one? The AISD board can fundamentally change the lives of workers through broad adoption of C3 principles on their projects. Their debate about wage rates shows the board’s heart is in the right place. Now, they should take the next step.

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