University Calls the Allegations “Concerning”
Students attending classes at the University of Texas at Austin this fall have a chance to “Live Big. Live Better” at some new luxury apartments on campus, but they might be shocked to hear the stories of workers who built those apartments. The website for the 2400 Nueces Apartments, which were completed this summer, proudly says a student can “share your life with an exciting community of friends while enjoying one of Austin's newest first-class highrise communities.” Apartments are available for less than $800 per person. Those prices are made possible through terrible mistreatment of workers, according to workers and their advocates.
Complaints have been filed with both the U.S. Department of Labor as well as the City of Austin, the Workers Defense Project said. Conversations with workers who helped build the apartments reveal they often weren't allowed to stop and get a drink of water even when the temperatures in Austin soared over 100 degrees. That meant the temperatures inside the building were above 110 because the air conditioning was not yet in service, workers said. The workers appear to have been misclassified and were discouraged from using safety equipment because doing so can slow down the pace of the work. “They wanted it done quickly and didn't care who got hurt,” one worker said. As many as 100 workers were only paid 40 hours per week when they had actually worked 60, workers’ rights advocates said.
“It’s a site where we've seen problems before,” said Greg Casar with Workers Defense. Casar pointed to an incident about a year ago at 2400 Nueces when a worker fell on two others – sending all three to the hospital. “We've been keeping an eye on this site very closely ever since then," he said.
Workers spoke to Construction Citizen on the condition of anonymity. They fear that if their names are publicized they could be deported or, perhaps worse, they might be barred from getting jobs in the future. “A horrible job where you’re mistreated is still better than no job at all,” one worker said. “At least you have some chance you might get paid.” That man has two children, ages 2 and 7. He said that he goes to work so early in the morning they’re asleep when he leaves and he often gets home so late at night they’re asleep again before he arrives. “But they’re fed and they’re safe,” he said. “That’s what’s important to me.”
The apartments at 2400 Nueces are somewhat unique in that they’re located on land owned by the University of Texas, but they’re operated by a private company: EdR Collegiate Housing. For the most part, the companies involved in the project have not been forthcoming in discussing the complaints.
For the construction, the general contractor was Hensel Phelps, which used Texas Exterior Systems as a subcontractor for drywall, which in turn used a company called Palomo Drywall. Neither Hensel Phelps nor Texas Exterior Systems returned calls and emails for comment, but the man who runs Palomo Drywall did answer his phone.
Francisco Palomo said that he paid about 70 men as independent subcontractors to do drywall at 2400 Nueces. He confirmed to Construction Citizen that he’s dealing with Department of Labor complaints on the job and that he has retained an attorney for that purpose. “This is something that’s going on with my lawyer right now,” Palomo said. He did not answer questions about whether the men on the site were denied water breaks or overtime pay. Palomo declined to comment further or say which attorney he has hired to handle his case. His phone disconnected as we were asking questions and he did not answer a follow-up call.
A spokeswoman for the University of Texas at Austin, which owns the land on which the apartments are built, called the allegations “concerning". Rhonda Weldon, Director of Communications for University Operations, said Construction Citizen’s inquiry was the first notice they’d received of the complaints. "It seems as though the proper authorities have been brought in to investigate,” she said. “We'll look forward to seeing the results," Weldon said. “We’re anxious to hear more.”
This is a developing situation. We'll keep you up to date as new information comes to light.