At Wednesday's City Council meeting, a group of Dallas day laborers and representatives from the Workers Defense Project were out in full force to advocate for local workers' rights. Their appearance yesterday was the latest in a push over the last several months to require Dallas employers to allow water and restroom breaks for workers -- an issue which particularly affects construction and minimum wage workers and day laborers.
It's an issue that, three months ago, City Council members overwhelmingly supported. But now, it seems to have stalled. So what exactly is the problem? Bureaucracy. The Dallas City Council doesn't want to make employers to give their workers water and restroom breaks because that might not be the City Council's problem.
"They are trying to drag their feet. I think they're hoping we'll go away," Stephanie Gharakhanian, policy director for the Workers Defense Project, says. "This is an issue that really goes to the heart of questioning of dignity and respect for workers. And the hesitancy of council members to act on this should raise an issue with Dallas residents."
Council members Vonciel Jones Hill, Sheffie Kadane and Lee Kleinman are the primary objectors to the proposed ordinance. Gharakhanian suspects that those opposed are both keen to avoid interfering in local businesses and do not want to step on federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's toes.
"In general there is a hesitancy amongst certain council members to regulate business. I think certain council members are more beholden to the construction industry," she says. "But I do think the city does set health and safety standards in a variety of ways and sectors, and this ordinance would just be another example of that."
According to research conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, of 325 construction workers surveyed at over 100 sites in Dallas, 33 percent reported that they received no break outside of lunch. Another 66 percent of Dallas construction workers also reported that their employers didn't provide on-site water, and 12 percent had witnessed a coworker faint from heat exhaustion.
And many workers feel too intimidated to raise a complaint with their employers. "They would tell me, 'Are you here to work, or are you here to drink water? If you're not here to work, you can go home,'" Amarildo Gonzalez, one local construction worker, says. It's a common sense issue, but one that many employers do not feel the need to enforce unless an outside group forces them to comply.
"We view this as a basic human rights issue. It is shocking and disturbing that it has taken the City Council so long to take action on this issue," Gharakhanian says. "It's clear that this is something that the city should take on. In Austin this has been on the books since 2010, and there has been no kind of legal challenge to that."
Hill, Kadane and Kleinman were not available for comment.
"If this is a controversial issue, I think that raises red flags. I hope that the council takes action, and if they don't I hope people hold them accountable come election time," Gharakhanian says. "Other people seem to understand that this is a basic health and safety issue. It's not controversial, it's about something as simple as having a rest and water. The City Council should not require so long to decide on an issue as simple as this one."