During the second anniversary of Hurricane Harvey and just ahead of Labor Day, Commissioner Rodney Ellis and representatives from Harris County Community Services Department gathered with labor organizations and community advocates on Wednesday morning to announce Opportunity Builds Harris County, which scored its first success with the passage of a slate of transformational new rules that embed stronger worker protection and economic opportunity provisions into Harris County’s construction contracting practices.
This initiative is seen as critical to aiding Harris County’s Harvey recovery, which is dependent on a strong, skilled workforce, and inspired by similar initiatives developed in New York and New Orleans following Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. By requiring county contractors to pay workers no less than $15/hour on county building projects, prioritizing worker safety and creating job and training opportunities, this initiative will help address Greater Houston’s growing labor shortage for skilled construction workers and ensure fair and safe labor practices central to our recovery.
“Creating access to good jobs with livable wages is the best path for Harris County because opportunity builds a better workforce, stronger families and a better Harris County,” said Commissioner Ellis.
“With many families still struggling two years after Hurricane Harvey, these new rules will give more families an opportunity to rebuild and share in our recovery.”
Recognizing that workers were the backbone of Harvey recovery, months earlier, Commissioner Ellis requested that Harris County Community Services Department and other county departments identify what actions the county could take to strengthen the local workforce. Labor leaders from the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, Workers Defense Project and others provided input during the development of these provisions and now laud their passage, recognizing how impactful these rules will be to working families in Harris County.
Paul Puente, Executive Secretary of Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council, said, “The working people who build up our county will benefit greatly from this historic agreement on community workforce development and worker protection provisions. Thank you to the Commissioners Court for its partnership in advancing apprenticeship opportunities, workforce training and safety protections for everyone who is looking to make a career in construction in Harris County.”
For over a year, the construction industry, labor organizations and local experts have warned that the Greater Houston region is facing a labor shortage for construction workers, which could impede the ability to timely complete many projects related to recovery and slow down the area’s economy. Paying better wages, creating training opportunities through apprenticeship programs, and prioritizing worker safety all can help develop a skilled construction workforce, according to proponents of Opportunity Builds Harris County.
Lacy Wolf, President of Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, said, “The policies approved by Commissioners Court go far toward ensuring every worker employed by construction contractors with the County works on jobs that are safe, receives appropriate pay, and has a path toward building a career in construction. Thanks to Commissioners Ellis, (Adrian) Garcia and Judge (Lina) Hidalgo for their support.”
Worker safety should be a major priority. Texas is the most dangerous place to work in construction in the country. Last year, the Houston-Harris County area had over 100 occupational deaths, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Jose Garza, Co-Executive Director of Workers Defense, said, “This agreement is an important step in providing safe, fair jobs for those who build Harris County and our state. We thank County Commissioners for their leadership and partnership, and we look forward to continuing to work with them to ensure that these protections are fully implemented.”
Good paying wages are also key to a stronger workforce. Although Houston has a reputation for being an affordable place to live, data shows that minimum wage workers earning $7.25 an hour would need to hold down nearly three jobs just to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Harris County.
“Hurricane Harvey exposed and worsened existing economic inequality in Harris County. We have an opportunity and an obligation to build and rebuild with sustainable wages and fair, safe labor practices,” said Commissioner Ellis. “I’m grateful for the work done by our county departments and labor leaders to help develop these pro-worker provisions and thank my colleagues on Commissioners Court for supporting this effort.”
Earlier this year, Commissioner Ellis initiated the creation of the Harris County Department of Economic Opportunity and Equity, which once fully formed will launch and guide initiatives like Opportunity Builds Harris County to create more opportunities for Harris County working families to thrive.
While labor leaders and Commissioner Ellis celebrate what some are calling historic worker provisions for Harris County, they also note that this is just the beginning of this effort. In addition to the provisions that were passed Tuesday, Commissioners Court also approved forming a workgroup to see how these provisions could apply to flood control projects and more.
The new worker protection provisions passed by Commissioners Court on August 27 will require that workers on all Harris County building projects, including multi-housing projects, receive a $15/hour minimum wage. This is a historic achievement, making Harris County the first county in Texas to establish a prevailing wage floor of $15/hour for county building projects. For contracts on disaster recovery projects, Harris County will also:
- Consider contractor safety record in awarding bids.
- Consider healthcare benefits in awarding bids.
- Recommend that all contractors adopt a second chance hire policy.
- Create a new job portal developed by Harris County Community Services that also offers access to training and complies with Section 3.
- Require all workers on CDBG and CDBG-DR funded projects to receive OSHA-10 training and all site supervisors will be required to have OSHA-30 certification. (Both are occupational health and safety certifications from the U.S. Department of Labor.)
- Require all projects to be LEED Certified and meet Harris County green building standards.