He's still in his 20s, but Amarildo Gonzalez has worked construction in the Dallas area for several years now, traveling the metro area repairing foundations and doing other work. He's worked through rain and ice storms, but the brutal Texas summers are by far the worst -- especially with Texas' notoriously lousy workers' rights regulations. That's why he and his fellow construction workers are lobbying Dallas City Hall for increased worker protections, hoping to duplicate the success of similar lobbying efforts in Austin.
"The hardest thing about working in the construction industry is working in the heat," he says. "The worst thing is that they don't give you permission to drink water and you can get dehydrated and suffer heat exhaustion."
He says his managers often had little pity when Gonzalez and his coworkers would request water breaks.
"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,'" says Gonzalez. Recently, a fellow worker suffered heat stroke on the job after he was denied a water break, he says. Gonzalez and his coworkers were left to administer emergency first aid until help could arrive.
Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, the Dallas Policy Advocate for the Workers Defense Project, says that around 1 out of 3 construction workers in the City of Dallas have no rest or water breaks outside of lunch. That's an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers who are not working under safe conditions.
"Often workers have had employers like Amarildo's who denied rest breaks outright in an aggressive way, or they simply didn't prioritize it," says Cardoza-Oquendo. A University of Texas study also indicates that 2 out of 3 contractors do not provide water at construction sites, and 1 out of 10 Texas construction workers have seen a coworker pass out from heat exhaustion. More construction workers are killed in Texas than in any other state.
No water or rest breaks can have dangerous consequences on the job. "It puts them at risk for heat related illnesses," says Cardoza-Oquendo. "It puts them at risk of injury, and of committing accidents on the job." And Gonzalez confirms that he often works with machinery on construction sites. "During the hot summer months, you lose focus," he says. Gonzalez describes how he and his coworkers also suffer from anxiety and depression after spending countless hours in the heat.
The Workers Defense Project is lobbying the Dallas City Council for better working conditions, including mandatory water and rest breaks, bilingual workers' rights information availability, and hefty penalties for employers that violate these standards. In the bubble of City Hall, members were not aware that these regulations were not already in effect.
"The general sentiment is that this makes sense," says Cardoza-Oquendo. "A lot of council members have expressed surprise that there are construction workers that don't already receive water breaks to sit in the shade. So this is about the city setting standards for how construction work should be done."
The City of Austin passed similar legislation for construction workers in 2010, in part due to the efforts by the WDP. While most were in favor of the regulations, some industry groups voiced opposition. "Some of the argument was it was burdensome on contractors to require breaks," Cardoza-Oquendo says. "But our response was that this used to be a common practice in the industry. The situation has gotten so that you have a sizable portion of contractors not giving their workers rest breaks. So unless the city mandates that rest breaks are required, it's not going to happen."
The WDP is also lobbying Dallas to post workers' rights information in both English and Spanish on construction sites. "We would like for them to be in Spanish because a large part of the workforce is Spanish-speaking," says Cardoza-Oquendo.
"The ordinance would only be as strong as long as workers can report violations. So it's really important, but at the same time it's a really simple measure that the city can take." The signs would help workers like Gonzalez, who says he didn't know about his right to report unsafe conditions before a friend passed along information.
"It's time for the city to step up to the plate to make sure that the men and women working to build the city have that basic protection," Cardoza-Oquendo says. "It needs to be a standard. Right now it's up to employers whether they give breaks. But it shouldn't be an option. It should be a right."
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