Workers group teams up with federal agency
Leaders hope collaboration will aid safety investigations
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.