'It's just awful': As workers weather oppressive heat, local laws protecting them could evaporate
When Austin electrician Ryan Pollock looks at the sprawling Oracle campus on Lakeshore Drive, he sees a greenhouse. Wiring that office space in triple-digit heat was bad enough a few years back. When the glass was installed, it was unbearable.
"If the glass isn't in, and it's warm, you're at least under shade and you'll have a breeze coming through," he said. "Then you throw in that glass ... you are drenched in sweat by, like, 6:30 in the morning … and that’s all day long — especially if you’re working overtime. It’s just awful."
Nearly a decade ago, Austin passed rules that mandate rest breaks for construction workers every four hours. A state law could undo those protections outright in Austin and Dallas for workers like Pollock, even as heatwaves in Texas get longer and more intense.
One-hundred-twenty-eight degrees. That was the temperature of the asphalt downtown Monday when a construction worker named Stephen was walking back to his truck after a 10-hour workday.
Stephen didn’t want to use his full name out of fear it could impact his employment. He had been installing aluminum panels on a building near Fifth and Rio Grande streets — all day, outside.
“It’s hot, man,” he said. “It’s brutal.”
Texas has seen record-breaking heat indices across the state this summer. Stephen says these temperatures are what you’d usually see in August, when — historically — Texas temperatures reach their peak.
As one might guess, water is crucial.
“We do a lot of precautionary measures,” he said. “We are constantly checking in with each other on where we’re at and how we’re feeling — any signs or symptoms for heat stroke, exhaustion, things of that nature — and drinking cold water and taking breaks."
Those breaks are required by local law in some cities; Austin mandates breaks every four hours, for example. But the state law known by opponents as the Death Star bill could undo those protections come September.
Supporters argued the patchwork of local laws make operating statewide difficult for businesses. Job sites may be required to mandate breaks in Austin or Dallas, but not in Houston or San Antonio. That could stifle growth and kill jobs, they said.
“We’ve proved that having an ordinance like this doesn’t really slow down construction in our community."Austin Mayor Kirk Watson
Austin Mayor Kirk Watson disagrees.
“We’ve proved that having an ordinance like this doesn’t really slow down construction in our community,” he said.
In the nearly 10 years Austin has had this ordinance, Watson argues, the city has grown at a breakneck pace. There are 19 commercial developments in downtown underway right now — with 34 more on the way, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance.
And as Austin has grown, its summers have gotten hotter. Watson says the ordinance is necessary.
“When you’re having these record-temperature days, it also proves there’s a reason to have an ordinance like this," Watson said, "so that we protect the health and safety of our residents."
Those record-temperature days aren’t going away, according to Victor Murphy, the climate program services coordinator with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. Murphy says he "absolutely" thinks Texas will see more and more records broken as the state gets warmer and warmer.
Murphy says this year’s heat — specifically the heat dome effect that’s sealed in humidity with the oppressive high temperatures — has gone against conventional wisdom in Texas. We had a wet spring, which, he says, typically blunts the impact of the summer sun. Not this year.
“Rainfall’s sort of like a natural air conditioner,” he said. “And, seemingly, this year even that didn’t matter.”
Even though construction workers are facing hotter summers — and potentially more dangerous working conditions — Austin’s break ordinance isn’t widely known and it’s unclear if it’s even being enforced.
The city has received a handful of calls about violations so far this year, but a spokesperson for the city’s Development Services Department’s told KUT code compliance officers haven’t investigated any cases.
Only 313 complaints have been filed with Austin 311 since 2015.
Pollock, an electrician who's with the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, says the rest break ordinance has never been enforced. Earlier this summer, he was working with Mayor Watson’s office to change that.
But in light of the Death star bill, he said, "that's all worthless."
Pollock says he's especially worried about non-union workers and folks on job sites who are undocumented.
"It's the folks who don't have that protection of a contract ... that we're concerned about," he said.
Even with union protections, there's no guarantee a foreman won't cut corners. Before air conditioning was installed at the Oracle job site, he asked his foreman if he could get some fans.
"The response I got was, 'I'm not paying you guys to drag fans around,'" he said. "And that's a union shop. Imagine how bad that would be without representation — where you have no power ... [if] you're somebody who's undocumented. Just imagine the conditions that they're having to put up with."
Stephen, the downtown construction worker, said his crew takes far more breaks than the city’s ordinance requires and no one has experienced a heat-related illness. Faced with more oppressive heat, he said, they're going to do what they always do: hydrate and take breaks whenever possible.
'Take the good with the bad'
Still, Mayor Watson said he hopes the ordinance prompted a shift on the part of the construction industry to be more mindful of work conditions.
“It’s incumbent on those who are in this business to make sure that breaks like this are available," he said, "and my hope is that becomes a natural part of the market since we can’t have the ordinance."
Ahead of the bill’s passage, supporters argued federal protections would be enough to protect workers from heat-related illnesses. Those protections from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Pollock says, are more guidelines than actual laws, like Austin’s ordinance.
In the 10-plus years he’s worked on job sites, he said, he’s never seen those enforced either.
"OSHA is way underfunded," he said. "It's not an actual threat."
But Austin's and Dallas’ ordinances may not be completely gone come September.
Houston sued the state in a Travis County court earlier this month, arguing the law that would ban these worker protections is unconstitutional. The city wants the law blocked before it goes into effect Sept. 1.
Whether the lawsuit is successful or not, this is Texas. The heat is here to stay.
And Stephen says he doesn't mind it. In a time of year when seemingly everyone is cooped up indoors with the AC cranked, he says he likes being outside.
“This line of work isn’t for everybody. So, I choose to do it. I enjoy it. I take the good with the bad,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hot. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it’s in between.”