Labors Lost


Nearly every month, it seems, a new luxury condo tower reshapes Austin’s skyline. Construction continues to boom in Texas’ capital despite the sagging economy. But not everyone benefits from the city’s bonanza. The men and women who swing the hammers and dig the foundations for Austin’s developers—like others around Texas—often go unpaid, according to a nonprofit labor group that helps workers resolve wage disputes.

The number of construction workers coming to Workers Defense Project seeking help getting paid has increased 131 percent this year, says Emily Timm, a policy advocate with the project. The increase is more than likely a sign of the tough economic times, she says.

Working without pay has, of course, been a chronic problem for undocumented folks in Texas and nationally; these workers have little recourse when they’re taken advantage of. But Workers Defense does not track the citizenship of the workers who come to it with wage claims. “To us, it isn’t an immigrant issue,” says Cristina Tzintzun, director of the nonprofit. “It’s an industry issue that affects all construction workers.” A recent study of low-wage workers in big American cities found that a whopping two-thirds (citizens and undocumented workers combined) reported at least one pay-related violation within the previous workweek.

One developer that has gotten the attention of Workers Defense is Gables Residential, a multibillion-dollar luxury apartment and condo developer based in Atlanta. The company has 12 construction sites under development in Austin. Timm claims that 13 workers are owed more than $68,000 at two of the development sites and haven’t been paid in several months.

Lynete Hegeman, vice president of marketing and communications for Gables Residential, says the fault lies with subcontractors hired by their subcontractors. “We always pay our people on time,” she says. “But it’s out of our control when it’s someone working for the subcontractor.” She says the company will look into the accusations.

If the workers still weren’t paid, Timm and the unpaid workers planned to picket in early October at the Gables Park Plaza site, which overlooks Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin. “The developers are the bottom line when it comes to the workers getting paid,” she says. “We hope Gables will work with us to change the practices at their work sites.” If so, it’ll be one developer down and many to go.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 12:00 am CST