This article by Representative Armando Walle, D-Houston originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 1, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
In recent years, attention has been drawn to the dangers and injustices faced by construction workers in Texas where business is booming and construction levels have rebounded to near pre-recession levels. Texas construction workers and their families are often set up for failure, dealing with dangerous work sites, poor wages, bad training and labor rights violations.
The sad fact is that Texas still leads the country in the rate of construction worker fatalities. This is unacceptable. Federal regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration provide some protections, but as a state we must make improvements to ensure safety at work sites, including adequate health and safety training and proper safety equipment for employees.
The role of workers' compensation is also particularly important for these construction workers. Workers' compensation provides a means for injured workers to pay medical bills resulting from workplace injuries and make up for lost income until they return to full employment. Workers' compensation also serves the families of workers killed on the job, providing a portion of the lost wages to surviving family members.
However, no benefits from workers' compensation are paid at all in more than 60 percent of work-related fatalities in Texas - a figure that is likely higher when limited to the construction industry, according to recent data from the Texas Department of Insurance.
Texas is currently the only state in the country that does not require workers' compensation for private employers. Consequently, a significant portion of Texas construction contractors do not carry workers' compensation coverage. Very few of these contractors self-insure or carry other coverage like life insurance in lieu of workers' compensation, so workers are forced to go to court to find a solution.
Injured workers and families, must somehow come up with the money to pay for decent legal representation and try to gain a judgment in their favor. While bringing suit, unpaid emergency medical bills pile up and the worker cannot access rehabilitative services he or she needs. Without proper medical attention, these injuries never truly heal, extending the time, sometimes indefinitely, before the worker can return to work. If the employer wins the lawsuit, their "savings" are passed on to local taxpayers who foot the bill for the uncompensated medical care.
The story of Houston construction worker Santiago Arias is instructive. In 2010, Arias was installing insulation on a commercial construction project without fall-protection equipment or a secure scaffold to work from. He fell from a roof, landing on his back on metal planks and was paralyzed from the neck down. Because his employer did not have workers' compensation or other benefits, the lost income and nearly $900,000 in medical bills devastated his family's livelihood.
I filed House Bill 475, which would require all construction contractors to carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees. Recently heard in the House Committee on Business and Industry, this measure would ensure that injured construction workers have the ability to get their medical needs addressed in a timely fashion, so they may recover from their injuries and return to work.
The Texas Legislature is also considering legislation to stop misclassification of employees as independent contractors and to guarantee periodic breaks for construction workers so they can survive our oppressive Texas heat. These and other bills all go toward ensuring that our hard-working construction workers are not treated as a disposable commodity, but as valued members of our community.