City Council to consider rest break ordinance
The Austin City Council today will delve into regulating working conditions in the construction industry as it considers an apparently groundbreaking ordinance requiring employers to give their employees regular rest breaks.
But the proposal does not compel employers to provide drinking water for construction workers, a provision that had been sought by an Austin-based workers advocacy group whose members staged a symbolic thirst strike outside City Hall in June. Council Member Bill Spelman’s office said the city’s legal department determined that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act already has a water provision.
Spelman, who sponsored a June 24 resolution asking the legal department to craft the ordinance, said it is a step toward improving workplace conditions for construction workers.
“With Austin’s high temperatures and humidity, it is critical to workers’ health and safety that they get a break every few hours to get out of the sun and drink some water,” he said in a statement.
The ordinance, which the council is scheduled to vote on today, is the latest milestone in the City Council scrutiny that began after the June 2009 deaths of three men in a scaffolding
Continued from B collapse at a West Campus high-rise. Weeks after the deaths, a report by the Austin advocacy group Workers Defense Project found that four in 10 Austin construction workers surveyed said their employer did not give them breaks, and 27 percent said they were not provided with drinking water. Construction industry representatives disputed the report.
Workers Defense Project Director Cristina Tzintzún said the ordinance would help protect workers’ lives.
Tzintzún said that if the city ordinance passes, workers could use their rest breaks to drink water and seek shade to avoid heat exhaustion and related health risks.
Under terms of the ordinance, which amends the business regulation and permit requirements of the city code, employers would face maximum fines of $500 for each day a violation occurs.
Workers would be entitled to a rest break of at least 10 minutes for every four hours worked, and no employee would be required to work more than 3½ hours without a break. Employees who work less than 3½ hours or spend more than half of their work time on indoor administrative duties would not be entitled to breaks.
The ordinance would also compel employers to post signs at construction sites describing the break requirements in English and Spanish. Spelman’s office said enforcement would be complaint-driven.
The national AFL-CIO said last month that it was not aware of a national, state or local precedent for a rest break law for construction workers. Under state law, private sector workers are not entitled to rest breaks, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces laws on construction site safety, does not explicitly require rest breaks for construction workers, though spokesman Michael Wald said workers are protected from heat stress under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide working conditions free from hazards causing or likely to cause physical harm.
Last month, Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, questioned why a local ordinance is needed if the federal government already regulates construction site safety.
Savio said it’s standard practice to provide workers breaks when it’s convenient to the work schedule, and he questioned the fairness of complaintdriven enforcement that he said could open the door to complaints from workers with an ax to grind.