COVID-19, Structural Inequality, and the Past and Future of Low-Income Latinx Construction Workers in Austin, Texas
Authors: SAMUEL TABORY and KAREN ENGLE
with JACOB BLAS, NEVILLE HOAD, SNEHAL PATEL, and MICHAEL BASS
Worker Interviews Conducted by: SAMUEL TABORY, ADAYLIN ALVAREZ, and KAREN ENGLE
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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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.
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.
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.
- This epidemiological analysis connects questions of occupational status and racial capitalism in producing particular patterns of racial disparities among Black and brown “frontline” workers. The analysis considers multiple sectors, including construction.
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.
- This epidemiological study demonstrates that that the decision to allow “unrestricted construction work” in Texas was associated with an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations for construction workers in the Austin region relative to the population at large.
Solar, Oielle and Alec Irwin. A Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization. 2020.
- This report presents a synthesized framework for a social determinants of health approach. It includes a specific discussion of “structural mechanisms” as being relevant to such an approach, paying particular attention to conditions of social and class stratification.
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.
- This book provides an international comparison of construction industry configurations and regulation. It considers multiple growth paths in the industry, paying attention to diverse models regarding investment in worker skills and training, worker safety and health regulation, job churn and career paths, as well as sub-contracting practices.
Torres, Rebecca et al. “Building Austin, building justice: Immigrant construction workers, precarious labor regimes and social citizenship.” Geoforum 45 (March 2013): 145-55.
- This article details Latinx construction worker precarity and vulnerability in what the authors describe as Texas’ “anti-labor climate” under conditions of “neoliberalization.” The article presents results from 312 surveys of construction workers and 37 qualitative interviews with both construction workers and industry representatives, showing a sector characterized by “poor and dangerous working conditions, low and stolen wages, limited benefits and racialized divisions of labor.”
Workers Defense Project. Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Austin: Workers Defense Project, 2013.
- This report discusses the challenges of the US immigration system for both undocumented construction workers and employers, both in Texas and nationally. It provides an overview of how labor practices, safety conditions, and economic considerations in the construction sector are affected by lack of comprehensive immigration reform.
Workers Defense Project. Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State. Austin: Workers Defense Project, 2013.
- This report details the various precarities predating the pandemic experienced by Latinx construction workers in Texas. It gives background on issues about Latinx workers and deadly working conditions, low wages and wage theft, and lack of employment benefits.
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.
- This working paper explores “penalty preemption legislation” and its role in mediating struggles over “the proper allocation of authority between states and their political subdivisions.” It explores such exercises of legislative preemption at the state level as “raw exercises of political power.”
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.
- This policy report discusses nationwide trends in state level preemption efforts around local minimum wage laws. It discusses the role of such local minimum wage requirements as attempts to calibrate policy to local economic conditions and explores the influence of corporate interests in the push for state-level preemption of such laws.
Phillips, Lauren E. “Impeding Innovation: State Preemption of Progressive Local Regulations.” Columbia Law Review 117, no.8 (2017): 2225-64.
- This law review article charts a shift in conservative political emphasis on “local control” to a strategy of “promoting broad state preemption statutes designed to reduce local power.”
Riverstone-Newell, Lori. “State Preemption as Scalpel and Sword.” Political Science and Politics 51, no. 1 (2007): 26-38.
- This contribution to an academic forum explores “maximum preemption” as a “reactionary” measure used by state legislatures, often at the urging of “pressure groups”, to reverse local legislation and ordinances. The analysis further charts specific harshening of rhetoric that is premised on a lack of regard for city leadership.
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.
- This policy brief shares research results demonstrating a “chilling effect” associated with confusion and fear surrounding the Trump Administration’s “public charge” rule. The research findings document pre-pandemic effects, while the report’s analysis discusses the implications of such effects in the context of the twin economic and health crises of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
- This policy blog post discusses the ways in which the Trump Administration’s immigration policies are interacting with and compounding immigrant vulnerability in the midst of the pandemic.
Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004
- This book details the histories of creating illegality and identity in regard to United States citizenship. It was used to give background on the construction of Mexican labor, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. Ngai details the shift in U.S. Southwest agricultural industry, the influx of Mexican agricultural workers and resistance by white Americans, and the creation of “undesirable” immigration.
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.
- This policy report traces legal and administrative policy changes that the Trump Administration has pursued if office, noting both continuities of previous policies and dramatic departures.
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.
- This web article charts connections between historical practices of segregation in Austin, accumulated contemporary conditions of inequality, and how the COVID-19 pandemic is being experienced in particularly devastating ways by Black and Latinx communities in Austin. The articles explicitly considers such connections across questions of housing segregation, food deserts, education, health disparities, and income inequality.
Tang, Eric and Bisola Falola. Those Who Left: Austin’s Declining African American Population. Austin: Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2016.
- This research brief explores the pressures influencing the decline in Austin’s Black population, charted between 2000 and 2010, despite dramatic population growth for the city overall during that same period. It asks whether Black populations “chose” to leave the city, or whether they were “compelled” to leave, reporting findings from surveys with former residents of east Austin.
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.
- This research brief explores the effects of gentrification on “those who stayed”, specifically residents of fast gentrifying neighborhoods in east Austin who have resisted moving away despite dramatic decreases of Black and Latinx populations in the neighborhood amidst even more dramatic influxes of higher-income white populations.
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.
- This report traces histories of residential segregation in early twentieth century Austin directed at Black and Latinx residents. It considers specific legal and policy mechanisms that were used to effect segregation in Austin, and situates such efforts in larger political context.
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.
- This report details contemporary gentrification dynamics in Austin. It considers the legal and policy context in which such gentrification pressures take shape, and proposes policy interventions at multiple levels of government.
Way, Heather, Elizabeth Mueller, and Jake Wegmann. “Halting Displacement on the East Riverside Corridor Must Become City Priority.” UT News, October 23, 2019.
- This op-ed describes on-going gentrification pressures and displacement concerns along Austin’s East Riverside Corridor, It advocates for the need to consider stricter policy interventions to maintain affordability and prevent displacement amidst tremendous on-going development pressure.
Zher, Dan, “Inheriting Inequality.” Austin American Statesman, accessed November 1, 2020.
- This digital interactive journalism series considers the legacies of historical redlining and other tools of segregation, exploring how they continue to be felt, particularly by Black and Latinx residents, in the contemporary built environment and social fabric of Austin.
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.
- This journal article explores a “regional equity perspective” and the role of “advocacy planners” in advancing visions of regional equity, specifically considering explicitly regional-scale governance dynamics around collaboration, conflict, and community building.
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.
- This journal article traces relationships across progressivism, growth boosterism, inequality, and “non-industrial” economic development paradgims, with the latter representing an explicit strategy aimed at “creating the scientific infrastructure to take advantage of the university’s skilled labor pool” as the basis of “a robust economy that was not dependent on heavy industry or unskilled labor.”
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.
- This journal article describes “negotiated growth management” in Austin in the 1980s, identifying the “twin assets of government and education” as undergirding strong economic performance in the region, particularly in “specialized advance services” that are connected to a “concentration of public-sector facilities” and a “strong research environment.”
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.
- This journal article elaborates a framework for “progressive regionalism spanning questions of growth, equity, participation, and representation. Considerations of the “labor market as a whole” and “multi-scalar” governing coalitions are key areas of analysis for the authors.
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.
- This journal article “takes seriously” the idea that city-regional logics and spatial units could be oriented toward diverse political and social ends, arguing that there is nothing “inherently neoliberal or regressive” about urban-regional spatial and political strategies.
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.
- This book chapter explores Austin’s rise as a “technopolis,” or an urban-regional “techno-cultural” economic growth model premised on “high-technology industry.” The chapter explores this growth model and connections with questions of social equity.
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.
- This journal article outlines the contours of debate about city-regionalism with particular attention to expanding that debate to include more direct consideration of citizenship and social-reproduction at the urban-regional scale.
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.
- This journal article considers the intertwining of regional competitiveness with “livability” and “creative city” policy discourses, specifically in the Austin region. It explores such discourses in the context of intra-regional inequality and localized political struggle.
McCann, Eugene J. “Livable City/Unequal City: The Politics of Policy-Making in a Creative Boomtown.” Political Economy 37 (2008).
- This journal article explores the equity implications of Austin’s status as a “creative boomtown” wherein economic growth around highly specialized clusters is combined with policy efforts to protect a particular style of “high quality of life” meant to attract “valued employees.”
In the Media
“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.