Update 1:21 a.m.: The Austin City Council decided early Friday not to restore $3.8 million in incentives to the builder of the downtown JW Marriott, siding with construction workers who say they’re getting paid less than promised.
The council decided to stick with the terms of the deal as interpreted by City Manager Marc Ott, effectively affirming the decision of Ott’s staff to revoke the incentives. Council members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman said the council’s intent was clear when it approved the White Lodging incentives, and, though the situation was subsequently complicated by questions about what exactly the city required and developer White Lodging agreed to, ultimately they had stick by the terms they approved in summer 2011.
White Lodging officials said the council should have amended the agreement with the city to explicitly reflect their reading of it, as per a plan approved by an assistant city manager after the council reached terms with the company.
“We’re disappointed, and we are exploring all our options,” said Richard Suttle, an attorney representing White Lodging. Company officials would not elaborate on those options.
EARLIER: Critics of White Lodging, the company building a downtown JW Marriott, kicked off a Thursday night debate about the project by marching in protest from Austin City Hall to the hotel construction site on Congress Avenue and back.
About 100 laborers, labor advocates and religious organizers said the City Council should not restore the $3.8 million economic-incentive package the company was awarded in 2011. The city staff cancelled the incentive package earlier this year after determining that White Lodging violated the terms by underpaying construction workers.
Company officials say the city staff is wrong and is asking for the incentives to be restored. The council was expected to vote on the matter late Thursday night or early Friday morning.
Shortly before 6 p.m., those encouraging the council not to restore the incentives gathered at the City Hall plaza holding signs like “We Build Texas, We Deserve Better” and “Queremos Justicia.”
“It is now important (White Lodging) live up to its agreement,” Joe Vasquez, the bishop of the Diocese of Austin, told the crowd.
The group then began marching down West Second Street chanting, “Exploitation ain’t the way/construction workers deserve their pay” as a few guitar players strummed and one man struck a drum beat on an empty plastic water cooler. The march stopped in front of the Marriott site and circled around a 12-foot-high inflatable rat with bright red eyes brought as a stand-in for White Lodging.
“They’re scared of us because we’re not scared of them!” one marcher yelled.
At City Hall, Deno Yiankes, White Lodging’s President and CEO of the Investments and Development Division, said the company had followed the intent of the City Council’s requirement that it pay all workers a prevailing wage. Most are making up to 20 percent more than that standard, as defined by the federal government. But some workers are making less; after the council gave its final go-ahead, the company crunched its numbers and determined paying every worker a prevailing wage would cost more than it saved from the $3.8 million in incentives. The company proposed paying the workers more, on average, and an assistant city manager approved the plan.
Yiankes said White Lodging has offered to pay all workers at least $11 an hour, which is not as much as labor advocates want but more than it has been paying some laborers.
“We’re not asking for anything more than the city agreed to,” Yiankes said. “We’ve done everything they’ve asked. This has a become a political issue, not an issue being discussed based on facts.”