Austin's Faster Permitting Program Will Include Construction Worker Protections

Feb 8, 2017

Have you ever looked up at construction cranes around town and wondered why it takes so long for things to get built in Austin? Developers will quickly say the city's permitting process has a lot to do with it. Now the city is about to start a new program to hopefully speed things up, but with speed comes a new set of rules.

The city’s new expedited permit program will allow developers to pay a premium in exchange for a speedier review. After a vote by the Austin City Council last week, large-scale commercial developers who use the program will have to ensure certain protections for construction workers. Bo Delp is with the Workers Defense Project, a group that advocated for those protections.

“The idea here is to create a baseline for what’s expected from project owners as they go through the expedited permit review process,” Delp said. “Austin is growing. That is a fact. We want to make sure that it grows responsibly in a way that works for everybody and that creates good and safe jobs in the process.”

The protections are based on standards set by the Better Builder Program, which is run by the Workers Defense Project. Among the requirements are providing worker’s compensation, safety training and paying a so called living wage. For large-scale commercial developers, these protections must all be verified by an independent on-site monitor. But there’s another stipulation that makes some in the builder community hesitant. They must recruit 30 percent of their workforce hours from Department of Labor-registered apprenticeships.

Some stakeholders have criticized that clause, saying it gives unfair preference to union training programs, versus those offered at local schools or colleges, but Delp said you don’t have to be in a union to establish one of these training programs.

“Here in Central Texas, it just also happens that many of them are labor unions, but there’s nothing stopping from a non-union shop setting up their own DOL-registered apprenticeship program,” he said. “For us, it’s about the quality of the training.”

Austin Community College runs one of those non-union training programs. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for ACC said “the college remains hopeful that the city policy will offer flexibility for recruiting including from ACC’s training programs.” For example, the college offers a pre-apprentice electrician program, which offers 240 hours of training for about $2,500.

Michael Murphy is with the Austin chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. His union’s electrician apprenticeship program runs about $740.

“It requires 10,000 hours on the job in addition to 960 classroom hours, and those on-the-job hours are paid hours,” Murphy said.

City staff are still working to fine tune the guidelines, but the program is expected to go into effect this spring.