The southern U.S.’s construction boom is not translating into better wages and working conditions for construction workers. Those are the results of a survey of 1,435 construction workers from six southern U.S. cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Nashville. The survey, which was administered during July and August 2016, was a collaboration between the Texas-based Workers Defense Project, the Partnership for Working Families, and Nik Theodore, PhD with the University of Chicago’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy. Their report, Build a Better South, was released today.
Among the notable findings is the risk of heat-related illness faced by many of the workers. During the survey period, the heat indices in the six cities ranged from 119 to 126. Most of the workers reported performing heavy manual labor for at least five hours per day. In these conditions, it’s not surprising that 89% of them described their workplaces as “hot” or “very hot.” Thirty-six percent, however, reported that water was not provided at the worksite. (A violation of the law since OSHA requires employers to provide an adequate supply of potable water.)
Failing to provide drinking water may be linked to another feature of the construction industry in these locales. Thirty-two percent of the workers were treated as independent contractors–and arguably responsible for bringing their own water–although the features of their work indicate they were actually employees. A business that misclassifies employees as independent contractors means they aren’t paying employment taxes and other employee-related costs. The authors note how misclassification can create a race-to-the-bottom because offending firms:
“…are able to submit much lower bids on projects and therefore harm employers who properly pay for benefits, employment taxes, and overtime. In order to compete, employers who are committed to correctly classifying their employees must look for other ways to cut costs. Based on our interviews with construction contractors, this usually means that they are forced to keep wages low in order to be competitive.”
I found the city-specific findings particularly interesting. In Charlotte, for example, 68% of the 200 respondents were Latino and 39% of them were undocumented immigrants. Only 11% of the 200 reported having any formal construction training, but 77% indicated they had received an OSHA 10-hour safety training.
The authors refer to at least four billion dollars in current construction projects in Atlanta. Several of the projects involve significant public investment. Despite the boom, the median wage of the 250 workers interviewed was just $14 per hour. One in four workers earned $12 an hour or less.
Among the 200 construction workers interviewed in Dallas, the authors note:
“Heavy pressure to do high volumes of work at a fast pace was a recurring theme in the interviews…”
Only one in four of the Dallas construction workers were covered by their employer’s health insurance plan, only 30% have paid personal days, and just 20% have paid sick days.
In Nashville, about 18% of the respondents obtained their current construction job through a temporary staffing agency. (In the other five cities, few of the workers reported securing their jobs in this manner.) Among the Nashville construction workers who had been injured on the job in the past year, 19% said they paid their own bill and 38% said their employers paid it through some mechanism other than workers’ compensation.
The report, Build a Better South, provides an important reality check on who is (and is not) reaping the benefits of the post-recession construction boom. Importantly, laced throughout the report are statements and statistics from the construction industry about firms being unable to recruit and retain skilled workers. That makes the word “build” in the report’s title is especially appropriate.
Building a better southern U.S. will mean providing the mechanisms for workers to fill the skilled labor gap. To do so employers in the construction industry need to invest in formal training and apprenticeship programs. They will need to set a high standard for wages, benefits, safety, and ongoing training. Likewise, developers, general contractors, and municipalities will need to establish criteria and make decisions that will promote higher wages and decent working conditions. They need to shun policies and practices that compel a race to the bottom. That’s how to build a better south…and elsewhere.
We know how the race to the bottom jobs turn out. It’s now in print for us at Build a Better South: low wages, no benefits, no rest breaks, and even in the sweltering heat of July and August, no potable water.