COVID-19, Structural Inequality, and the Past and Future of Low-Income Latinx Construction Workers in Austin, Texas


Worker Interviews Conducted by: SAMUEL TABORY, ADAYLIN ALVAREZ, and KAREN ENGLE


Austin Construction Workers
Photo Credit: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and KUT News

Updated: January 2021
Original: November 2020

The Austin, Texas region is among the fastest growing major metropolitan areas in the country. It is home to some 69,000 construction workers, many of whom earn low wages and are Latinx. On March 31, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared all construction work state-wide “essential,” reversing local orders in Austin that had previously exempted only limited construction projects. In the months to follow, clinical data, media reporting, and, ultimately, public health modeling, would point toward the construction sector as an early COVID-19 hotspot in Austin. This report examines structural legal and political drivers of unequal risk and precarity that contributed to this scenario.

Given that Austin has long been hamstrung in its efforts to fight racial injustice, particularly on behalf of low-income (often undocumented) Latinx workers, the report situates its findings as part of a larger conversation on the future of the social determinants of health approach, urban-regional growth politics, and worker advocacy and organizing in a post-pandemic world. The report includes responses from a pilot set of interviews with Latinx construction workers in the Austin region.







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Key Insights

Construction and COVID-19 in Austin

Analyses of the construction industry in Texas, and by extension Austin, as well as comparative analysis of construction industry configurations globally, consistently indicate key structural factors in the sector that participate in the production of general conditions of worker vulnerability. Many of these structural factors interact directly with current pandemic conditions. Worker responses indicate, for instance, that the health and economic risks that Latinx construction workers face from COVID-19 can vary widely, depending in part on whether workers are on large sites, with stricter safety protocols but with potential exposure to many more people, or on small sites where enforcement of safety protocols is potentially less consistent but the overall number of people on a site is fairly small. They also depend upon whether workers are direct employees of companies that provide employee benefits such as sick leave and health care or whether they work for small sub-contractors (or are independent contractors) without such benefits.


Key Legal and Political Drivers:

State preemption of local government attempts to mandate minimum wage and sick leave, provide affordable housing policy tools, and craft sensitive immigration policies yield cumulative social and economic effects that compound low-income Latinx worker precarity in the Austin region.

Immigration law, policy, and enforcement combine to complicate the ability and willingness of Latinx workers to seek testing, medical care, and emergency relief support.

Housing conditions and household economic security are negatively affected by rising housing costs in the region—amidst displacement and development pressure—creating conditions that potentially compel multiple members of a household to work outside of the home, even during the pandemic. If workers are displaced to jurisdictions outside of the City of Austin or Travis County, they may have less access to local public aid and could face greater risk of immigration enforcement.

Urban-regional growth politics and law in the Austin region are structured in ways that consistently subsidize corporate interests at the expense of low-income workers and artificially truncate analysis of how worker vulnerability is entangled with the claims of local growth boosters, namely around the region’s “low cost of living” and “progressive identity.” Early interview responses suggest mixed worker perspectives on growth and economic opportunity.


Pathways Forward

The City of Austin brands itself as a progressive city, albeit in a conservative state that preempts broad areas of law and policy that might otherwise have some favorable distributive effects for workers, including low-income Latinx construction workers. Yet that same preemption, alongside conservative state policies, also allows the Austin region to promote itself as an area with low-regulatory burdens and low-taxes, as well as to underemphasize the extent to which it produces public subsidies for particular kinds of industry and workers. The report recommends that, at a minimum, large corporate players that specifically benefit from Austin’s urban-regional economic configuration and identity be made to carry a greater share of the total costs necessary to sustain public investment in broad processes of urban-regional social reproduction to ensure that all segments of the workforce, not only “high-skilled” workers, can thrive.

The pandemic, as a moment of unusually broad-based crisis (though still experienced in dramatically unequal ways along lines of race, class, and gender), may create openings for particular policy debates and responses, both nationally and at the urban-regional scale, that did not previously seem politically possible. The idea of “building back better” might offer a galvanizing starting point for such conversations, but only if we interrogate the meaning of “better” and directly confront both the aims of that effort and the distribution of the costs and benefits associated with it.



Annotated Bibliography

COVID-19, Racial Disparities, and the Social Determinants of Health
Construction Industry and Worker Vulnerability 
Preemption: Multi-Level Authority and Responsibility 
Immigration Law and Anti-Immigrant Climate
Segregation and Gentrification
Urban-Regional Growth Politics


COVID-19, Racial Disparities, and the Social Determinants of Health

McClure, Elizabeth S, Pavithra Vasudevan, Zinzi Bailey, Snehal Patel, and Whitney R. Robinson. “Racial Capitalism within Public Health: How Occupational Settings Drive COVID-19 Disparities.” American Journal of Epidemiology (2020): 1-10.

Pasco, Remy, Spencer J. Fox, S. Claiborne Johnston et al. “Estimated Association of Construction Work with Risks of COVID-19 Infection and Hospitalization in Texas,” JAMA Network Open 3, no.10 (2020): 1-11.

Solar, Oielle and Alec Irwin. A Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization. 2020. 


Construction Industry and Worker Vulnerability

Bosch, Gerhard and Peter Philips, eds. Building Chaos: An International Comparison of Deregulation in the Construction Industry. London: Routledge, 2013.

Torres, Rebecca et al. “Building Austin, building justice: Immigrant construction workers, precarious labor regimes and social citizenship.” Geoforum 45 (March 2013): 145-55.

Workers Defense Project. Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Austin: Workers Defense Project, 2013. 

Workers Defense ProjectBuild a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State. Austin: Workers Defense Project, 2013.


Preemption: Multi-level Authority and Responsibility

Gillette, Clayton P. “Preemption and Entrenchment of the State/Local Divide.” New York University Law and Economics Research Paper No. 20-41, April 19, 2020.  

Huizar, Laura and Yannet Lathrop. Fighting Wage Preemption: How Workers Have Lost Billions in Wages and How We Can Restore Local Democracy. New York: National Employment Law Project, 2019. 

Phillips, Lauren E. “Impeding Innovation: State Preemption of Progressive Local Regulations.” Columbia Law Review 117, no.8 (2017): 2225-64.

Riverstone-Newell, Lori.  “State Preemption as Scalpel and Sword.” Political Science and Politics 51, no. 1 (2007): 26-38.


Immigration Law and Anti-immigrant Climate

Bernstein, Hamutal, Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, and Stephen Zuckerman. Amid Confusion over the Public Charge Rule, Immigrant Families Continued Avoiding Public Benefits in 2019. Washington DC: Urban Institute, May 2020. 

Chishti, Muzaffar and Sarah Pierce. “Crisis within a Crisis: Immigration in the United States in a Time of COVID-19.” Migration Policy Institute, March 26, 2020. 

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004

Pierce, Sarah and Jessica Bolter. Dismantling and Reconstructing the US Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency.Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2020. 


Segregation and Gentrification

Brehm, Robert. “Austin’s segregation mirrored in the devastating burden COVID-19 imposes on city’s poor, uninsured and yet ‘essential.’” Urbanitus, July 15, 2020.

Tang, Eric and Bisola Falola. Those Who Left: Austin’s Declining African American Population. Austin: Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2016.  

Tang, Eric and Bisola Falola. Those Who Stayed: The Impact of Gentrification on Longstanding Residents of East Austin. Austin: Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2018.

Tretter, Elliot M. and M.Anwar Sounny-Slitine. (2012). Austin restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City. Austin: Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2012. 

Way, Heather, Elizabeth Mueller, and Jake Wegmann. Uprooted: Displacement in Austin’s Gentrifying Neighborhoods and What Can Be Done About It. Center for Sustainable Development, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and the Entrepreneurship, 2018.

Way, Heather, Elizabeth Mueller, and Jake Wegmann. “Halting Displacement on the East Riverside Corridor Must Become City Priority.” UT News, October 23, 2019. 

Zher, Dan, “Inheriting Inequality.” Austin American Statesman, accessed November 1, 2020. 


Urban-Regional Growth Politics

Brenner, Chris and Manuel Pastor. “Collaboration, Conflict, and Community Building at the Regional Scale: Implications for Advocacy Planning.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 35, no. 3 (2015): 307-22.

Busch, Andrew. “Building ‘A City of Upper-Middle Class Citizens’: Labor Markets, Segregation, and Growth in Austin, Texas, 1950–1973.” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 5 (2013): 975-96.

Butler, Kent S. and Dowell Meyers. “Boomtime in Austin, Texas: Negotiated Growth Management.” Journal of the American Planning Association 50, no.4 (1984): 447-58.

Clark, Jennifer and Susan Christopherson. “Integrating Investment and Equity: A Critical Regionalist Agenda for a Progressive Regionalism.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 28, no. 3 (2008): 341-54.

Harding, Alan. “Taking City Regions Seriously? Response to Debate on ‘City‐Regions: New Geographies of Governance, Democracy and Social Reproduction.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31, no. 2 (2007): 443-58.

Hartenberger, Lisa, Zeynep Tufecki, and Stuart Davis. “A History of High Tech and the Technopolis in Austin.” In Inequity in the Technopolis: Race, Class, Gender, and the Digital Divide in Austin, edited by Joseph Straubhaar, Jerimiah Spence, Zeynep Tufecki, and Roberta G. Lentz, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Jonas, Andrew E.G. and Kevin Ward. “Introduction to a Debate on City‐Regions: New Geographies of Governance, Democracy and Social Reproduction.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31, no.1 (2007): 169-78.

McCann, Eugene J. “Inequality and Politics in the Creative City‐Region: Questions of Livability and State Strategy.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31, no. 1 (2007): 188-96.

McCann, Eugene J. “Livable City/Unequal City: The Politics of Policy-Making in a Creative Boomtown.” Political Economy 37 (2008).

In the Media

Webinar: “COVID-19, Structural Inequality, and the Future of Low-Income Latinx Construction Workers in Austin

UT study: Politics put Texas construction workers at risk early in outbreak.” Austin American-Statesman. December 22, 2020.

Opinion: Worker exploitation in Texas’ throwaway culture.” Austin American-Statesman. December 13, 2020.

Austin’s Latino Construction Workers Have Been Pummeled By COVID. Researchers Say Economic Policies, Rapid Growth Are To Blame.” KUT, Austin’s NPR Station. December 11, 2020.

Construction Workers Have Been Pummeled By COVID. Researchers Say Economic Policies, Rapid Growth Are To Blame.” Rapoport Center. December 7, 2020.