On Wednesday, February 27, over 500 construction workers and their supporters marched to the Texas Capitol to rally for better working conditions in the industry. Holding banners with facts like “Texas is the Deadliest State to Work in Construction” and “More Workers Die in Texas Than Any Other State”, these activists called for an end to the dangerous conditions and frequent legal violations that characterize Texas’s construction industry. During the day, workers and their advocates visited with every senator and representative, as well as the Governor’s and Lt. Governor’s offices, to share their experiences with workplace injuries, wage theft, and payroll fraud.
A recent study by the University of Texas found that one out of every five workers in Texas has been injured on the job and required medical attention. The study also found that construction workers in Texas die on the job at a higher rate than in any other state with a sizable construction industry. One factor contributing to these staggering findings is the lack of safety training: two-thirds of the Texas workforce has never had basic safety training. Adding insult to injury, only 40% of workers report that their employer provides workers’ compensation coverage.
Furthermore, the study documents that a shocking 41% of the construction workforce falls victim to payroll fraud – a common occurrence where workers are paid under-the-table in cash or personal check or are misclassified as independent contractors instead of employees.
Payroll fraud results in workers being stripped of employee rights and forced to pay the majority of taxes at the end of the year. It short-changes the Texas Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund by over $54 million each year in unpaid unemployment insurance premiums and contributes to the dangerous working conditions in Texas. Payroll fraud also leads to poor health outcomes for Texas construction workers who don’t have access to workers’ compensation.
The prevalence of payroll fraud in the Texas construction industry has everything to do with the high injury rate and low workers’ compensation coverage rates as found by the University of Texas study. When employers misclassify their workers, they effectively sidestep all responsibility for their employee’s well being.
Construction contractors that only employ “independent contractors” rarely offer safety training or provide safety equipment and will not cover those employees with a workers’ compensation policy. Texas is the only state that doesn’t require an employer to provide workers’ compensation. As a result, no one thinks twice about injured workers showing up at the hospital without workers’ compensation coverage.
Payroll fraud, in addition to cheating Texas out of millions of dollars, contributes to the deadly conditions that Texas construction workers routinely face.
That’s why, on the Day of the Fallen, construction workers called upon their legislators to protect workers by passing policies that address safety and payroll fraud in the construction industry. Workers advocated for a number of proposals that would ensure safety. One proposal requires that employers provide safety trainings and workers’ compensation coverage. Another addresses payroll fraud and creates penalties for wage theft.
By taking on all of these issues, Texas can reinvent itself as a proponent of workers’ rights and an innovator in employee safety. Texas construction workers and the long-term sustainability of the industry, depend on it.