AUSTIN, TEXAS - UPDATE: Council member Ann Kitchen's resolution to add worker protections to the city's expedited permitting process for construction projects passed Thursday. It requires that workers be paid a living wage of $13.03 per hour, OSHA training, worker's compensation, a 30 percent local hiring goal, compliance with employment laws and a third party on-site monitor to ensure these standards are upheld.
The sound of construction has become the norm in Austin with everything from hotels and apartments to libraries and parks being built. But developers and contractors all seem to have the same problem; getting through the city's permitting process in a timely manner.
It's a universal problem for people building a house or a high-rise. In 2012, the City of Austin admitted to having a massive backlog. Staff were taking three times as long to approve and issue permits. Then in 2015, renowned consultant Paul Zucker of Zucker Systems analyzed the city's process concluding it was underfunded and needed new leadership.
"It's a mess," said Bo Delp, Better Builder Program Director for the Workers Defense Project. "It's a huge mess and developers have been asking for an expedited permit review process for a long time."
The City of Austin is now in the process of creating a voluntary, accelerated program for commercial development. For a fee, plans could be approved in a day.
Delp said while that's good news for the industry, it can present challenges for construction workers.
"More construction workers die in Texas than in any other state. One in five report being seriously injured. 50 percent don't even get overtime pay. That was according to a study that was done in collaboration with the University of Texas."
Those stats are a reality for workers in Austin. Felix Jimenez moved to the city from Mexico 16 years ago hoping to build a better life for his family. During his time working on roofs of both homes and commercial developments, he's seen co-workers die on the job and was injured himself.
"I fell from a three story house and I almost ended up in a wheelchair," said Sam Robles who translated Jimenez' interview for KVUE News. "I wasn't given any workers comp and I was told by my employer to lie when I ended up in the hospital."
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