Work­ers group teams up with fed­eral agency

Lead­ers hope col­lab­o­ra­tion will aid safety in­ves­ti­ga­tions

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Juan Castillo jcastillo@states­man.com; 445-3635

An Austin-based work­ers ad­vo­cacy group says a new col­lab­o­ra­tion with the fed­eral La­bor Depart­ment will strengthen the group’s ef­forts to make the con­struc­tion in­dus­try safer and to re­cover back wages for work­ers.

Un­der the col­lab­o­ra­tion, which starts in Au­gust and will be an­nounced to­day, the non­profit Work­ers De­fense Project said it will be able to iden­tify to the La­bor Depart­ment em­ploy­ers it thinks should be in­ves­ti­gated for work­place safety and wage and hour vi­o­la­tions. In ad­di­tion, La­bor Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives will reg­u­larly at­tend the group’s meet­ings to take work­ers’ com­plaints, said project Di­rec­tor Cristina Tz­intzún.

El­iz­a­beth Todd, a La­bor Depart­ment spokes­woman in Dal­las, con­firmed that the agency’s wage and hour di­vi­sion will col­lab­o­rate with the work­ers project to pro­tect em­ploy­ees who may not be aware of their rights by pro­vid­ing train­ing and guid­ance. Todd said the col­lab­o­ra­tion ap­plies across many in­dus­tries, not just con­struc­tion. She said that al­though the col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Work­ers De­fense Project is new, “the depart­ment has al­ways re­ceived re­ports and has en­cour­aged re­port­ing of this na­ture.”

Tz­intzún said that as part of the col­lab­o­ra­tion, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the fed­eral Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion — the arm of the La­bor Depart­ment that en­forces fed­eral laws on con­struc­tion site safety — also will ad­vise work­ers about their rights and on how to file com­plaints.

“I think that this will have a tremen­dous im­pact on im­prov­ing work­ing con­di­tions in Austin,” Tz­intzún said.

A June 2009 study by the work­ers project, in con­junc­tion with the Uni­ver­sity of Texas’ Di­vi­sion of Di­ver­sity and Com­mu­nity En­gage­ment, de­picted a lo­cal con­struc­tion in­dus­try plagued by poor and dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions. One in five con­struc­tion work­ers sur­veyed said they were not al­ways paid for their work. In­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives dis­puted the find­ings.

Harry Savio, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Home Builders As­so­ci­a­tion of Greater Austin, said the group has stand­ing con­cerns about due process and whether dis­grun­tled work­ers could trig­ger in­ves­ti­ga­tions that might not be jus­ti­fied.

“When­ever you have en­force­ment on a com­plaint-driven ba­sis, you do not get uni­form en­force­ment at all,” Savio said.

OSHA says its vis­its to con­struc­tion job sites can be planned or ran­dom, part of a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion or in re­sponse to fa­tal­i­ties, in­juries or com­plaints.

Tz­intzún said the work­ers group will iden­tify po­ten­tial prob­lem em­ploy­ers based on com­plaints of mem­ber work­ers. She said the group pre­vi­ously could not pro­vide agen­cies with the names of firms it thought should be in­ves­ti­gated.

“We were only al­lowed to give work­ers those agen­cies’ phone num­bers, and that was it,” said Tz­intzún, adding that the group was never sure that worker com­plaints were be­ing in­ves­ti­gated be­cause it could not com­mu­ni­cate with the La­bor Depart­ment to check on the sta­tus.

She said the or­ga­ni­za­tion serves about 2,500 low-wage work­ers a year and that about 85 per­cent of its com­plaints arise from the con­struc­tion in­dus­try.

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