Ben Sklar for Al Jazeera America

A Texas miracle or a mirage?

Many construction industry laborers experience the downside of the Lone Star State’s economic boom

AUSTIN, Texas — Once it is completed early next year, the J.W. Marriott in downtown Austin will jut elegantly into the city’s skyline, boasting 1,012 guest rooms, a rooftop pool, a cabana bar and two hotel restaurants, at a cost of $300 million. Blocks away, the ground has been broken on a 17-story, 366-room Westin. A little farther than that, a 47-story, $370 million Fairmont Hotel is being erected, in addition to a 160-room Hotel Zaza, which will rest atop luxury apartments.

Javier Bautista, who has worked on such construction projects in Texas’ booming building industry for more than a decade, can measure his life not by floors and square footage but by a different set of numbers. Fourteen years since he came to Texas from Mexico City. Fourteen years in construction, mostly in Austin. The $8 to $10 an hour he typically makes on the job, despite the fact that he has been building since he was a teenager.

Javier Bautista
Ben Sklar for Al Jazeera America

In 2012, Bautista drove to Houston for a job that promised to pay him $200 a day, a significant bump from his typical wages. There, as he was descending from a ladder, a nail that had not been properly folded over on a baseboard pierced his foot. Desperate for the money, Bautista bandaged his wound and worked through the pain for days until finally the whole foot had become infected. When he told his supervisor about the injury, the boss, instead of sending him to seek immediate medical attention, instructed another worker to drive him back to Austin. Bautista was left in an emergency room; five of his toes were eventually amputated.

“They didn’t even pay me,” Bautista told Al Jazeera through a translator. “It was for nothing.”

Bautista, 38, said it was only by “God’s miracle” that he paid his medical bills, with his fellow workers and friends rallying to raise the money and another taking him in for eight months while he recovered and was out of work.

Bautista’s foot swells painfully if he remains standing for too long, and he cannot do many of the jobs he used to be able to do before the accident. Still, he remains in construction, scraping together a living on hourly, inconsistent work.

Why? “For necessity,” he said. “You have to pay your rent, you have to have something to eat — that’s why we go to work.”

The illusion of prosperity

Workers like Bautista might exemplify the underbelly of the “Texas miracle” — the phenomenon, touted by three-term Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican lawmakers, of steady job creation and economic growth in the Lone Star State.

Indeed, as Perry prepares to leave office after 12 years and embark on a potential 2016 presidential run — as he has hinted at — he has a formidable record to point to: from March 2004 to March 2014, the state created 2 million jobs, accounting for 29 percent of net new jobs in the past decade for the entire country. The unemployment rate stands at 5.5 percent — well below the 6.3 percent national average.

And although some argue that the Texas success story is a house of cards, built on a foundation of low-wage work, a recent study by the Dallas Federal Reserve found that job creation had grown at an impressive clip in all four wage quartiles, with the state economy in fact creating just as many high-end jobs as low-wage jobs.

Perry argues that Texas' success can be attributed to his adherence to conservative free-market principles — low tax rates, a welcoming regulatory environment, subsidies for businesses to set up shop in Texas and a minimum wage no higher than the federal floor. His detractors insist that the root of that wealth is a resurgent oil and gas industry and has little to do with conservative policies.

A construction site in Austin.
Ben Sklar for Al Jazeera America

What’s clear is that despite the bounty, bolstering safety net programs has not been the priority of the Perry administration. His likely successor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, is even more averse to using government interventions as a remedy for poverty and other social ills.

“There’s no miracle,” state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Harris County, said in an interview. “We have a lot of poor people, too. We are at the bottom of the safety net circumstance, and our budget can withstand improvements.”

Coleman, too, is armed with numbers. Every year, the Texas Legislative Study Group, a center-left caucus that Coleman chairs, publishes a report called “Texas on the Brink,” which looks at the state’s public policy failings.

In 2013, the study found that Texas ranks first in the nation in the percentage of the population that is uninsured; eighth in the percentage of the population living below poverty level; third in the nation for the percentage that had experienced food insecurity; and 48th in the percentage of the low-income population that is covered by Medicaid. Texas also has the ninth largest Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

All of those factors have coalesced to make the quality of life for Texas workers, especially on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, particularly difficult, said Rene Lara, legislative and political director of the state AFL-CIO.

“There are tradeoffs, there are winners and losers, there’s an illusion of prosperity and the reality of prosperity for some,” Lara said. “But workers at the bottom of the totem pole are only benefiting because they are better off than in their home country.” 

‘We are humans’

Few industries typify the trade-offs made in the past two decades of Republican governance more than the construction industry. On the one hand, robust economic growth has fed high demand for building — in contrast to the rest of the country — so jobs are, relatively speaking, abundant. But those doing the dirty, dangerous work are offered few protections and are stuck making paltry wages for years on end, while contractors and corporations reap the rewards.

On a warm Austin night in early May, construction workers gathered at the headquarters of the Workers Defense Project, an advocacy group championing construction workers’ rights, to share their grievances.

Pablo Rivas
Ben Sklar for Al Jazeera America

Pablo Rivas, 38, came to the state out of desperation — jobs in his home country of Honduras were practically nonexistent, and his son had been diagnosed with epilepsy. He could not afford the medications, and he had heard there was plenty of work to be found in Austin.

“I came here looking for the solution, but it was worse here,” Rivas said.

It’s taking him much longer than he anticipated to save up enough money to go back home. In 2009, he was working on a job when there was an accident — two Hondurans and a Mexican worker plummeted to their deaths. Rivas remembers seeing their bodies splayed on the ground.

The other workers were sent home without their pay.

Rivas said he has no other choice than to work in construction, and he will stay in Texas only long enough to pay for his son’s treatment and buy a small plot of land in Honduras where he can farm corn and coffee.

“I have five children and I’m the provider, I’m the only person that takes care of my children and my wife,” he said.

Emily Timms, deputy director of the Workers Defense Project, said such stories are all too commonplace. According to a report published by the organization in conjunction with researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Chicago, more construction workers are killed in Texas than in any other state. One in five workers say they have suffered an injury on the job that required medical attention, and there is only one Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector for every 100,000 workers in the state.  

Meanwhile, Texas is the only state in the nation where employers are not required to carry workers’ compensation insurance.

What happens in case of an accident?

“The job is over and it’s your problem,” said Graciela Alvarado, 42, a construction worker who, despite her petite frame, works 10 to 12 hours a day sweeping up the dust and debris after a project is finished.

“I have a lot of co-workers who only last a month or so, they start coughing a lot of dry coughs, it’s hurting their backs, they get headaches,” she said.

Volunteer Jen Scott counsels construction workers seeking assistance at the Workers Defense Project.
Ben Sklar for Al Jazeera America

Wage theft, wherein employers simply refuse to give workers their earned pay — although illegal — is another rampant problem in the industry, Timms said, and workers often do not have the means to take recourse. The Workers Defense Project often acts as an advocate, intervening on behalf of workers with the companies and then providing legal aid if the employer still refuses to pay.

Pensions and health benefits are almost a laughable idea, particularly for the many undocumented workers who make up the construction industry.

“Texas’ prosperity has been built at the expense of certain groups of people,” Timms said. “It’s been incredibly lucrative for certain businesses, including construction firms and developers, but that hasn’t meant a parallel prosperity for the workers.”

Alvarado has one basic request for her employers and policymakers.

“They have to take into consideration that we are humans. Just because we work in construction doesn’t mean we should be valued less,” she said. “We need help.”

Bautista said that when he came to the United States, he imagined that he would be sweeping dollar bills off the street. The reality has been far less kind.

“Bosses look at us and think you are going to make me rich. That’s where the problem is at,” he said.

“When you know how to do your job and they want to pay you nothing for the job that you know how to do, sometimes it makes you not want to go,” he continued. “I find it really unfair that I’m helping you make $1,000 and you pay me $90. Meanwhile, my family in Mexico is dying from hunger, and basically I am too.”

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