City Council calls for worker protections with expedited permitting

The Austin City Council on Thursday night asked the city’s staff to draw up a proposal within 60 days for an expedited permitting program that would require worker protection standards for all commercial projects with no residential components.

The passage of the resolution is a victory for construction workers in the city who had asked the council to ensure that they were guaranteed a living wage and what they called “minimum safety requirements,” such as occupational safety training and workers’ compensation.

“This is a positive step for working families here in Austin and Central Texas,” said Jose P. Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project. “The biggest victory tonight is that the voices of working people were heard loud and clear.”

The slow permitting process spotlighted in a city-sponsored report last year has long been a problem for both the city — which says it is bogged down by the large number of applications — and developers, who say the extended waiting period costs them large sums of money. The expedited permitting program would fast-track applications for those willing to pay a fee, which is yet to be determined, by allowing them to meet with staffers from all the city departments that need to sign off on the permit.

By allowing the departments’ representatives to be in the same room at one time with the applicant, the idea goes, applicants would know exactly what they need to do to receive approval and would significantly cut down the wait for receiving the permit. Cutting down the time spent on receiving a permit would also lower costs for builders, proponents say.

The proposal approved Thursday also has worker protection standards that include living wage and workers’ compensation requirements, occupational safety training for workers and supervisors, a local hiring goal, independent on-site monitoring of construction sites and compliance with all local, state and federal employment laws.

The proposal is modeled after a similar program in Dallas, but that city’s program doesn’t have worker protection standards attached.

Several people spoke against the resolution, arguing that while they saw the benefit of expedited permitting, requirements for workers’ protections should be dealt with separately.

Attaching these requirements to the program would make the costs for implementing it so burdensome that builders wouldn’t save money, said Geoffrey Tahuahua, vice president of public policy for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.

“The concern we have is that with some of these requirements depending on the cost … it’s almost going to be a disincentive to use this program because of the additional costs from these requirements,” Tahuahua said.

Traci Berry, a Goodwill Central Texas senior vice president for community engagement, said she was concerned the requirements would leave out many of the people who go through her group’s worker-training programs.

Under the local hiring requirement, the city would aim to have 30 percent of the total work performed on a site come from local apprenticeship programs registered with the Department of Labor, which Goodwill’s programs are not.

“If you’re not DOL-certified, are there not going to be incentives for people to hire from us? Are they not going to use us?” Berry said.

Berry said Goodwill’s programs are just as helpful to people looking for work training and are offered to people who “need help badly.” And while the group’s programs don’t require employers to pay the city’s living wage of $13.03 per hour — which also would affect Goodwill’s program under the proposal — Berry said students who go through the program are still paid good wages that get them into much-needed work quickly and under employers who want to get them on track to careers and better pay.

City staffers will come back to the council with plans on how to establish self-sustaining fees for the program, how to ensure a fair process for picking third-party independent monitors for sites and whether exceptions will be made for projects based on scale and scope.

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