500 gather in Austin for Day of the Fallen

On June 9, 2009,  Wilson Joel Irias Cerritos of Guatemala, Jesus Angel Lopez Perez also of Guatemala, and Raude Ramirez Camacho of Mexico plunged to their deaths when ill-designed, overloaded scaffolding on which they were working crumbled and collapsed.

The three worked on a construction crew building the 21 Rio high-rise apartments near downtown Austin. Their employer, Capoera Construction LLC of Margate, Florida, was cited and fined by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration for not properly inspecting the scaffolding and for not providing safety training to its workers.

Other Capoera workers not injured in the accident have since charged the company with wage theft. They also reported that Capoera did not allow its workers to take rest and water breaks despite the fact that summer time temperatures in Austin frequently hover around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and they said that the company didn’t have workers compensation insurance, so that when they were injured on the job and couldn’t work, they had no income to make up for lost wages.

Construction work in Texas is a dangerous endeavor and can be deadly, which is why Build a Better Texas, a joint effort of construction workers, honest construction businesses, safety advocates, and faith leaders, has initiated a campaign to improve construction safety and to stop labor abuses such as wage theft by unscrupulous contractors. 

Last week Build a Better Texas held a Day of the Fallen in Austin to commemorate the deaths of Irias, Lopez, Ramirez and hundreds of other construction workers who have died on the job in Texas. 

More than 500 construction workers and their supporters from all over Texas gathered at Austin’s downtown federal building and marched to the state Capitol carrying coffins in honor of those who have died on the job.

The Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based worker center that helped organize the event, reports that in 2009 Texas recorded 138 on-the-job construction worker deaths–that’s one death every 2.5 days. “That’s a statistic that belongs in the 19th Century, not the 21st  Century,” said Texas state Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr speaking at the Day of the Fallen rally.

“The construction industry (in Texas) has long been marred with safety problems that have hurt workers, and made it more difficult for honest busineses to compete,” read a media release by the Workers Defense Project, which helps low-income, mainly immigrant workers organize and fight back against abuses like poor on-the-job safety and wage theft.

After the rally, workers and their supporters went inside the Capitol to build support among lawmakers for the Build a Better Texas legislative agenda, which would:

1) Require Texas construction companies to provide workers compensation insurance. Texas is the only state in the US that does not require employers to have workers compensation insurance. Only 45 percent of Texas’ construction workers are covered by workers’ compensation, despite the fact that one in five Texas construction workers have suffered a serious on-the-job injury. Sen Lucio has filed SB 938 that addresses this issue, and Rep Armando Walle has filed a companion bill, HB 1734, in the House.

2) Require ten-minute rest breaks every four hours on state-owned construction sites. Despite the hot, life-threatening summers that Texas experiences, 41 percent of Texas construction workers report that they don’t get rest breaks.

3) Mandate ten hours of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety training on government-owned construction sites. While construction work is some of the most dangerous work, 64 percent of Texas construction workers report that they never received any safety training.

4) Enhance enforcement against wage theft. One in five construction workers report that employers either didn’t pay them or didn’t pay them the correct amount. In some cases, construction employers do not pay time and one-half for overtime. 

5) End tax fraud which some construction employers commit by misclassifying workers as contract employees and not deducting income taxes or paying Social Security taxes.

“Those who build our state face some of the most dangerous and unhealthy working conditions in the country,” said Emily Tinn of the Workers Defense Project. “Texas needs to hold (all) employers to . . . high standards so that good businesses aren’t undercut by those who break the rules.”

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