A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Win-Win: City of Austin Considers Worker Protections, Permit Reform

Editor's Note: The Workers Defense Project in Austin is making progress in promoting its Better Builder Program, which seeks to ensure construction workers are paid correctly and are as safe as possible on construction job sites. More information about the program is here. In the guest op-ed below, the Better Builder Program Director Bo Delp explains that the Austin City Council is considering an expedited permit process for developers that agree to use the program on their projects.

The City of Austin is considering a budget-neutral policy that will create a win-win for workers, project owners, and honest contractors. 

Sound too good to be true? Hear me out.

Like much of Texas, the City of Austin is growing rapidly, and as a result its permitting process has become a mess, leaving project owners feeling the financial impact of serious delays. 

In response, the city is poised to create an expedited permit review process that will help reduce wait times for owners from months to days by asking owners to pay a premium, hourly fee. The challenge is that Austin is the most economically segregated city in the country and is facing a serious affordability crisis. Unbridled and unmanaged growth could amplify and exacerbate our city’s challenges. This would especially be felt by the men and women who build our city. 

Not convinced? Here are the facts: according to a study conducted in collaboration between Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, more construction workers die on the job in Texas than in any other state. One in five construction workers report being injured on the job. While fifty per cent of workers report not receiving overtime pay, more than one in five report being denied payment for their construction work in Texas.

That’s why, in response to a broad community coalition, the city is also considering Better Builder standards as a minimum requirement for participation in this expedited permit review process. Since 2012, Better Builder standards have been implemented on six projects (with a seventh on the way) totalling nearly $1 billion in development to ensure over 8,000 men and women in construction gain access to good, safe construction jobs. 

Through Workers Defense Project’s Better Builder program, developers commit to requiring wage and safety standards for all construction workers on their projects. That includes following all wage and safety laws, and providing a living wage, OSHA-10 training, and workers’ compensation insurance to all construction workers. It also includes a local hiring goal from DOL-registered apprenticeship programs and bilingual craft training programs to incentivize quality craft training programs. 

Better Builder also requires independent on-site monitoring to ensure these standards are upheld throughout the contracting chain. Better builder on-site monitoring is an independent, professional, and factually driven process set up to collaborate with contractors and owners to resolve any wage and safety issues as quickly as possible. 

For Austin’s permitting proposal, which would be completely voluntary, the city may ask owners to partner directly with Better Builder monitors to independently verify worker standards are upheld. Or, the city may procure these services independently -- both options are on the table. What’s most important to Workers Defense Project is that Better Builder standards translate to meaningful gains for men and women facing deadly conditions in the Texas construction industry. We believe that can be achieved through an on-site auditing process that is expedient, independent, robust, and fair to all parties.

The great news is that the value generated for project owners because of reduced waiting times is greater than the cost of implementing Better Builder standards, so developers win. Men and women in construction win because owners will require these baseline protections on their projects. Meanwhile, the city would actively reward project owners who help level the playing field for honest contractors.

Now, there will be some who insist on industry self-monitoring and regulation (I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona for anyone who thinks that works!), and others whose business model depends on low-wages and minimum safety protections. Nothing changes for you. This program is 100% voluntary: you won’t be forced to participate, and you are welcome to wait in line for your permits like everyone else.

An expedited permit review process that requires Better Builder standards for commercial construction is a voluntary city program that is a solid public policy decision. It will benefit taxpayers, project owners, honest contractors, and workers. Will you support it?