A new report from the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice finds that Austin’s Latinx construction workers have suffered outsized consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the city’s economic growth and related political decisions, including a mandate to allow construction work to continue during the coronavirus pandemic’s outset.

According to the report, although Latinx individuals account for only 34% of the population in Austin and Travis County they, “make up 50% of those who have tested positive for coronavirus, 54% of COVID-related hospitalizations, and 51% of COVID-related death,” as of early October. Professor Karen Engle, founder and co-director of the Rapoport Center and lead author, says, “The fact that they [Austin’s Latinx construction workers] were vulnerable was related to their occupations, but their occupations were related to their race and ethnicity – and the income of the jobs.”

The report, titled “COVID-19, Structural Inequality, and the Past and Future of Low-Income Latinx Construction Workers in Austin, Texas,” explores how state preemption of local ordinances, federal immigration law, and lack of social provisioning have combined with regional urban growth politics in the Austin region to drive unequal health and economic consequences for low-income Latinx construction workers in an era of COVID-19.

Professor Engle co-authored the study with Texas Law colleagues Neville Hoad, Jacob Blas and Adaylin Alvarez, as well as Samuel Tabory of Harvard University and Michael Bass from Northeastern University.

construction site
Photo Credit: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and KUT News

Key findings include:

  • The simultaneous health and economic risks that Latinx construction workers face, both generally and under conditions of COVID-19, vary widely depending on whether workers are:
    • working on large sites with strict safety protocols but with potential exposure to many more people vs. small sites where safety protocols are less consistent but the overall number of people of a site is fairly small;
    • direct employees entitled to benefits vs. sub-contractors or independent contractors without access to any employer-provided safety net.
  • Key legal and political drivers played an important role, including:
    • State preemption of context-specific local policy responses around minimum wage and sick leave ordinances, affordable housing policy tools, and immigration policies yield cumulative social and economic effects that compound Latinx low-income worker precarity in the Austin region.
    • Immigration law, policy, and enforcement combine to complicate overall landscapes in which Latinx workers need to decide about whether and how to seek testing, medical care, and emergency relief support (provided by local governments).
    • Housing conditions and household economic security are affected by rising housing costs in the region—amidst displacement and development pressure—creating conditions in which multiple members of a household might feel compelled by economic necessity to work outside of the home. Displacement to jurisdictions outside of the City of Austin or Travis County can have implications for both the local public aid provisioning capacity and immigration enforcement conditions that low-income Latinx construction workers face.
    • Urban-regional growth politics and law in the Austin region, the nation’s fastest growing major metropolitan area, 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.”

The report has made local headlines since its publication, including in The Austin American-Statesmanand on KUT.

View the original report here.