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About 60,000 to 65,000 construction workers are on the job in the Austin area today. They are working on towers rising high over downtown, or on apartments and homes fanning out from the city.
Like most of the rest of us, the developers and builders, the ultimate bosses of those workers, retreated to the safety of their laptops on dining room tables in mid-March. As we did, the COVID-19 outbreak began to cast a lengthening shadow over Austin.
Kerry Tate sees a disparity in this.
She is a partner with Dawn Moore in Moore-Tate Projects + Design, which builds 10-12 homes each year with an average price of $950,000 in South Austin. Moore-Tate's workforce includes about 125 contractors and subcontractors, and Tate says 98% of them are Hispanic men.
"We encouraged workers to stay home without penalty of losing their place with us. And, if not, to be more aware, safe and take this more seriously than they seem to do. A few do. Most do not. They make it clear they are determined to work and will find it wherever they can, whether on our sites or elsewhere."
Yet they aren't really free to go home, says Tate. Construction workers live paycheck to paycheck. The White House has moved to restrict and reform immigration policies. According to Tate, Austin's construction workers are largely unprotected and "live in the shadows."
Although she is a builder, Tate has challenged her industry. She opposes action by the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and allied groups in the construction industry that successfully petitioned Gov. Greg Abbott to reverse Austin and Travis County orders to shut down all but essential construction.
Tate, who is 65, is anything but a brick-thrower. While she is not a member of RECA, for years she was a central player in the Austin business world. She served as chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1996.
She does not argue with RECA's efforts to reverse city and county stop-construction orders. RECA is a lobby, and lobbying groups represent their members. Indeed, Tate says she is "awed" by RECA's effectiveness in securing the governor's favor.
Now, however, Tate wants the construction industry to use that same power on behalf of their workers. She wants RECA to lobby for legal protections for the immigrant workers who are so vital to the industry and to the prosperity of Texas.
"If I had things my way, I would compel RECA to use this moment to use the stroke [influence] just demonstrated," she says, "to make a meaningful change—to be relentless in proving we are powerful enough to help our workforce achieve legal status with a clear path to citizenship."
Tate's call comes as the University of Texas-Austin released a study Friday claiming that if construction sites in the Austin area remain open, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the general population by mid-August could triple from an estimated 10,000 to 30,000, and the hospitalization of construction workers could increase eight-fold. That could be the case, said UT's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, if nothing is done to mitigate health risks on construction sites. Local building industry executives dispute the assumptions in the UT report.
City and county officials say they will work to mitigate health risks, but they can't do it all. The industry must pitch in.
Dianne Bangle, CEO of RECA, said Tate "raises really important issues" in her call to the industry to fight for a path to citizenship for construction workers. "RECA has always been the one to continue these discussions, be at the table and participate, and help guide any solution."
However, Bangle said, "what is absolutely in front of us now is the protection of the health and safety of the workers."
Dianne Bangle is CEO of RECA. (Diane Bangle)Diane Bangle
Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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