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Reporter’s Notebook: Texas Senate Votes to Pre-Empt Water Breaks for Construction Workers 

“I am not writing this to sneer at Texas, even though its late great journalist Molly Ivins famously described her home state as ‘the National Laboratory for Bad Government.'” — Steve Wishnia

AUSTIN, Texas—Last month, Georgia enacted a law making it illegal to give people waiting on line to vote anything to drink. Last week, the Texas state Senate approved a bill that would prohibit local governments from mandating water breaks for construction workers laboring in the broiling Lone Star State sun — as well as any other benefit not guaranteed by state law, such as paid sick leave or predictable schedules.

The bill, SB 14, is primarily aimed at cities that have tried to require paid sick leave. State courts have blocked such ordinances enacted by Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in 2018 and 2019, but the legislation would “lock the ban into statute,” a spokesperson for the Texas AFL-CIO told LaborPress.

The 19-12 vote on April 13 was along party lines, except for one Democrat who voted yes.

“The Texas Senate today gave license to low-road employers to deny basic workplace benefits,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Secretary-Treasurer Leonard Aguilar responded in a statement. “It’s bad enough the state of Texas affords next to nothing in such benefits unless the federal government insists. Under SB 14, construction workers would not get rest breaks in 100-degree weather, fair hiring ordinances would go away, and tens of thousands of working people would continue to face the terrible choice of whether to work sick and risk infecting others or whether to skip a paycheck.”

The bill’s prospects in the House are uncertain. In 2019, the Senate passed a similar bill to pre-empt local sick-leave regulations, but it died in the House because of concerns that it could nullify local anti-discrimination ordinances.

Its lead sponsor, Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), has said it would not affect such ordinances. But the Senate rejected an amendment that would have explicitly exempted them, on an 18-13 party-line vote. The question would almost certainly end up in the courts, the AFL-CIO spokesperson said, “and we are not confident the non-discrimination ordinances would be considered exempt.”

Creighton, whose district stretches east from Houston’s northern outer suburbs to the Gulf Coast oil-refinery cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, boasts that he passed drug testing for unemployment benefits and was “the man who kept Obamacare out of Texas” and “led the charge to ensure that Texas did not expand Medicaid.”

I am not writing this to sneer at Texas, even though its late great journalist Molly Ivins famously described her home state as “the National Laboratory for Bad Government.” I have friends and family there, many of whom prickle at attitudes like “let them secede.”

Pre-emption laws are a national issue. Since 1997, 26 states have forbidden local governments to set minimum wages higher than the state’s, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute released last September. They include not just every Southern state except Virginia, but also Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Texas’s 2003 minimum-wage pre-emption was its courts’ justification for voiding the local sick-leave ordinances. Laws enacted by Alabama and Ohio in 2016 and Missouri in 2017 either aborted or nullified local minimum-wage increases in Birmingham, Cleveland, Kansas City, and St. Louis. 

Other pre-emption laws prohibit local ordinances requiring paid sick leave in 23 states, among them New Jersey. They outlaw project-labor agreements in 21 states; prevailing-wage mandates in 11; and fair-scheduling regulations in nine — and in the last seven years, 38 states have barred local governments from regulating gig-economy companies. 

New York State doesn’t have any such labor pre-emption laws — but it has prohibited local governments from enacting rent controls stronger than the state’s since 1971, and until 2019 barred them completely outside New York City and its inner suburbs. Illinois also forbids local rent-control laws.

Still, a state law that says construction workers don’t need water breaks is seriously egregious. The Texas Senate specifically rejected an amendment that would have exempted any rule or ordinance “that requires rest breaks for construction workers” on a strict 18-13 party-line vote.

For one, Texas is hot. When I spent two weeks in Austin one recent August, the thermometer passed 90° every day. I inevitably walked the mile to the newsstand or the fresh-tortilla shop with a bottle of Topo Chico mineral water in my hand. Two days before the Senate vote, San Antonio was the second-hottest major U.S. city after Phoenix, with a high of 90°. Do the state’s Republican senators want building-trades workers to die of heatstroke?

The answer might be, “it’s acceptable if the regulations would impinge on profits.” In 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 123 Texan construction workers died of injuries sustained on the job, and another 32 succumbed in vehicle accidents — about 15% of construction deaths nationwide. Two years before, 183 had lost their lives. “This rate may underestimate the scale of the problem, as the deaths of workers without papers may not be reported to authorities,” the British international trade journal Global Construction Review noted. 

In contrast, in New York City, which has slightly less than 30% of Texas’s population, 22 construction workers were killed on the job in 2018, up from 20 the year before — a toll that has been intensely protested by building-trades unions and their supporters. (Five-sixths of the deaths occurred at nonunion sites.) 

Sen. Creighton, however, argued that the rest-break amendment was unnecessary, because there are federal regulations to protect workers from unsafe conditions.

“The Texas Miracle is not an accident, it is a product of state legislative policies that promote a pro-business climate, and prevent burdensome regulations,” he posted on Twitter Apr. 12. “Texas business owners don’t need city hall telling them how to run their business or treat their employees.”

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2 thoughts on “Reporter’s Notebook: Texas Senate Votes to Pre-Empt Water Breaks for Construction Workers ”

  1. If you’re a reporter, your first sentence in this article should be corrected, as it’s untrue. The law you speak of says that partisans may not approach people waiting in line to vote, even if they are doing so with the excuse that it is merely to give people water. People standing in line to vote may have all the water they want; it’s a question of who is allowed to give it to them. This is the kind of sloppy reporting that causes big misunderstandings in this country, and the media is responsible for most of it, by doing things like this.

    1. First off, I am a reporter, have been one for more than 30 years, and have won a couple awards for my work. Second, the Georgia law in question states that “nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector” if they’re within 150 feet of the building where a polling place is located. In other words, it’s illegal to give water to anyone waiting on line to vote, regardless of who’s giving it. 
      Yes, the phrase in question is part of the law’s no-electioneering-at-the-polls clause, but it was specifically added this year by Senate Bill 202. It doesn’t say a “political organization” can’t give people water, it says “any person” can’t. Whose research is “sloppy” here? — Steve Wishnia

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