AUSTIN, Texas - Austin health officials are tracing COVID-19 cases to construction sites in Travis County. Austin Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said construction sites are becoming hotspots for the virus. The city plans to target testing at construction sites.
In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Austin halted all non-essential construction projects until the governor’s executive order declared all construction work essential. The Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit advocating for low wage workers rights, worked with the city of Austin in creating guidelines for workers to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s been a concern for us from the start that construction workers like other essential workers are forced to make the impossible choice between protecting themselves and their families from a potentially fatal disease and going to work and paying the bills,” said co-executive director Emily Timm.
Rosendo, a longtime construction worker in the city of Austin, takes extra precautions to avoid taking the virus home to his family. Instead of greeting his wife and children with hugs and kisses, he throws his clothes in the washer and showers. He said workers on site are not provided masks and instead bring along anything they can to cover their mouths. He was lucky to find a surgical mask he could purchase at H-E-B last week. Conditions were rough before the pandemic Rosendo explained.
“No one is safe working right now,” Rosendo said. “We use dirty restrooms, lots of times there are no areas to wash hands and soap doesn’t exist, if it does it’s because someone brought it.”
According to the city’s complaint cases dashboard, since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been more than 200 complaints made by people saying there isn’t social distancing, face masks, there’s over-occupancy and as Rosendo mentioned, complaints of sanitation.
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A statement released by a city spokesperson said in part, “Code enforcement inspectors have focused on education and ensuring that construction industry partners know the latest information to keep their workforce safe and healthy.”
The Workers Defense Project is advocating for investment in enforcement, and Timm said everyone, employers, city officials, and state officials, can provide more resources to maintain a safer work environment for workers.
“We’ve been very concerned that unless we have across the board strong enforcement of construction working conditions in the city of Austin then workers are at extreme risk and we’ve started to see that play out on construction sites,” said Timm.
Many workers feel unsupported, Timm adds, saying that immigrants, a community left out of federal and state economic relief, make up about 50 percent of the construction industry.
“We are the labor hand and unfortunately they turned their back on us. They forgot about us,” said Rosendo. “The state and the federal government, they don’t care about our families.”
The Workers Defense Project has created an undocumented worker relief fund to assist. Timm said it’s important workers educate themselves on resources available which include retaliation protection if diagnosed with COVID-19 and paid sick-leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
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