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No halt to construction, but Austin insists on workers’ safety
photo by Emma Freer

Construction continued along Red River, seen here from a parking garage across I-35, where UT-Austin is realigning a street and also building a new multipurpose arena. (Emma Freer)

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledges that Gov. Greg Abbott trumps the city of Austin when it comes to whether construction workers will continue to work. They will stay on the job--but with the city guiding work behavior.

"We'll continue to enforce the non-conflicting parts of the city order to mitigate the risk for workers, their families, and the city at large," the mayor said in a written statement Thursday.

What this means is that construction men and women will still be on the job in Austin, but the city will make an effort to educate workers and job site managers. The city will enforce safety requirements such as social distancing, and see that recommended hygiene practices are being observed.


On March 31, the governor issued his own order implementing statewide protocols, which followed the definition of "essential services" provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This came a week after the city of Austin's March 24 stay-at-home order restricting nonessential construction in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

In conceding to the state, the city has said that all construction will be allowed to continue despite the pandemic.

In mid-March, the governor said he was confident cities would make the best decisions for their communities, a sharp diversion from his past positions against local control, including his recent criticism of Austin leaders' homelessness policies. But his March 31 order, which instructs Texans to stay home except for essential work and services, moves toward a more centralized state response to the pandemic.

Before the governor's announcement, Austin's construction industry was lobbying city leaders to reconsider the local order. Unlike those in other big cities in Texas—including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—Austin's order did not consider construction "essential," with exceptions for projects related to public works, affordable housing, social services, government functions and critical infrastructure.

In a joint letter sent on March 25—the day after the city's order was announced—representatives from the Austin Apartment Association, Austin Board of Realtors, Austin Chamber of Commerce, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin and the Real Estate Council of Austin, among others, urged Adler and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to "Keep Austin Building," arguing that job sites allow for social distancing and other safety measures.

Silvia Pendleton, executive director of the Austin Contractors and Engineers Association, was one of the letter's signatories.

No ACEA members have laid off workers yet, she said, but many were concerned about compliance.

Ana Gonzalez is the director of the policy and Better Builder programs at the Workers Defense Project, a progressive advocacy group that represents low-income workers, many of whom are immigrants and work in construction.

Because all construction work is allowed under the governor's order, Gonzalez said the organization's priority is to ensure job sites are safe and the city's safety requirements are maintained.

"[Construction workers] need to go to work because they live paycheck by paycheck," Gonzalez added. "And they don't have the ability to work from home. They don't have a safety net to fall on."


This article has been updated to clarify the position of the Workers Defense Project.

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