Building the American Dream: a documentary
Claudia Golinelli and her husband, Alex, thought they were finally going to get paid.
The two electricians had been doing work at a supermarket under construction in Roanoke, Texas, and their employer had refused to pay them anything until the work was finished. By the time the project was completed, they were owed $11,000, had missed three months of mortgage payments, and were in danger of losing their home in the Dallas suburbs.
Finally, the employer said the two would be paid if they came to the job site to collect the money that was owed them.
When they arrived, however, the construction superintendent called the police. He accused the two undocumented workers of stealing materials and tools. In reality, though, he just didn’t want to pay the money he owed.
Claudia’s and Alex’s story is chronicled in a brand new documentary, Building the American Dream, which debuted last month at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin. Gradually, the documentary has been garnering more and more national attention, earning coverage and accolades in publications as far flung as the Hollywood Reporter and the Washington Post. This weekend, it is part of a film festival in Dallas, and next month it will be shown in Los Angeles.
By one measurement, Texas is home to four of the nation’s five fastest-growing cities with populations over 50,000. That creates a tremendous need for new housing, which in turn opens up a lot of construction jobs. There are about one million construction workers in Texas, almost half of whom are undocumented workers.
Building the American Dream lays out just how vulnerable those workers are. Two of the most common problems are wage theft and job safety.
According to a study conducted in 2013 by the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas at Austin, more than one in five construction workers in Texas (22 percent) had been victims of wage theft.
And the work is dangerous. On average, a construction worker dies in a job-related accident in Texas every two and a half days. Nationwide, more than 1,000 construction workers die in accidents each year, but in Texas, where safety enforcement standards are lax and workers’ compensation does not cover contractors, the work is particularly dangerous.
According to the same study, between 2007 and 2011, 585 Texas construction workers died from workplace injuries, compared with 299 in California, which had a larger construction work force. And between 2003 and 2010, construction accounted for about 6 percent of the Texas work force, but 26 percent of workplace fatalities. Back in 2007, the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities documented 142 on-the-job deaths of construction workers in Texas; the next highest state was California, with 81.
In addition to tackling wage theft, Building the American Dream also addresses worker safety. It tells the story of Roendy Granillo, who on July 19, 2015 began feeling ill while installing a hardwood floor at a home in Melissa, Texas. Co-workers say Roendy told his bosses that he wasn’t feeling well and asked for a water break; they refused. The high temperature that day was 97 degrees; by the time he arrived at a hospital, his body temperature had climbed to 110 degrees and he died of heat stroke.
“I feel an emptiness in my heart that isn’t going away,” his mother, Graciela, says in the film. “As time goes on, you wish you could see him.”
Gustavo Granillo, Roendy’s father, adds, “Si mi hijo tuviera a alguien con ellos que cuidara a sus trabajadores, esto no le habría sucedido.” or “If my son had someone with him who cared for their workers, this wouldn’t have happened to him.”
Just as there are not always adequate safeguards to protect vulnerable communities from wage theft, there also is not a single law on the federal level or statewide in Texas that guarantees construction workers adequate rest breaks (two Texas cities, Austin and Dallas, now have ordinances mandating such breaks).
On both fronts, workplace safety and wage theft, things could get worse.
Last month, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a CHN member, released an issue brief that found that enforcement activity by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – the federal agency charged with workplace safety – is significantly declining.
“New data just released by OSHA reveals that safety enforcement activity continues to decline under the Trump Administration, dropping in FY 2017 and falling even further in FY 2018,” writes Deborah Berkowitz, NELP Worker Health and Safety Program Director. “The number of complicated and high-penalty cases have been dramatically reduced. The agency also revealed that the number of OSHA inspectors under the Trump Administration is now at a historic low. This is not just from budget cuts, but from a failure to fill vacancies in a timely manner.”
Berkowitz continues, “Alarmingly, the number of OSHA inspections due to workplace fatalities or catastrophes in FY 2018 rose dramatically – a strong sign that workplace fatalities are increasing under this administration. At the same time, as if it were trying to disappear, the agency has all but stopped issuing enforcement-related press releases, abandoning the deterrent effect that this kind of publicity produces.”
And there’s another area where the Trump Administration could make things worse for construction workers, including construction workers who happen to be undocumented workers.
Just last week, President Trump’s Department of Labor issued a proposed rule interpreting the “joint employment” standard. Christine Owens, NELP Executive Director (and a member of CHN’s Board of Directors), calls the proposal “aggressively anti-worker” and explains that for more than a century, the Fair Labor Standards Act has recognized the doctrine of “joint employer” responsibility – the idea that two or more companies can share responsibility for the treatment of their workers.
“So when a company contracts out work to a staffing firm or other labor subcontractor, it may still share responsibility for the workers, which helps ensure the lead company provides better oversight of and compliance with minimum wage, child labor and overtime protections,” Owens said in a written statement.
Owens said the Trump Administration’s proposal lets corporations that outsource jobs off the hook, leaving typically smaller and poorly capitalized local businesses holding the bag for violations. “The DOL proposal would make it harder for workers to enforce wage and hour laws and will encourage more outsourcing to under-capitalized labor contractors like temp and staffing firms, especially in low-wage sectors such as construction, agriculture, garment, janitorial, home care, delivery and logistics, warehousing, and manufacturing,” she said.
The proposed rule is currently in its public comment period. You can comment by visiting https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/04/09/2019-06500/joint-employer-status-under-the-fair-labor-standards-act. Under the current timeline, the deadline for submitting comments is by the end of the day on June 9.
Meanwhile, whatever happened to Claudia Golinelli and her husband, Alex?
It’s been over five years and although they managed to recoup a tiny remittance, they are still owed about $10,000, money they never expect to see and now ruefully laugh about. And things have gotten worse; Claudia was driving home one day when she was pulled over for speeding. Police turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement; now she has to check in with ICE periodically, and is fearful of deportation.