How disdain for government regulation sparked a “Texas miracle” economy — while tearing down protections for the workers who built it.
More than 20 years after the Texas Legislature passed a law establishing a 24-hour work safety hotline, real people are answering the telephone calls around the clock.
The decision came after The Texas Tribune, as part of a months-long investigation of the Texas workplace, reported that callers to the state-run hotline were being turned away after normal business hours because of a glitch in the voicemail system.
The Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation, which operates the bilingual hotline so Texans can report unsafe working conditions, quickly fixed the snafu the same day it was revealed late last month.
A few days later, authorities decided to make a user-friendly upgrade by turning over after-hours calls to an answering service, officials said. Now, people who call the heavily advertised hotline will get a live person on the other end, not recorded greetings and messages. Daytime callers were never affected by the glitch.
“Your stories kind of raised the profile of it, and there was legislative interest, and it seemed like a logical solution,” Division spokesman John Greeley said this week. “It’s fixed. It feels like we’ve got a better answer, a better response.”
After learning of the snafu last month, the chairman of the House Business and Industry Committee, Democratic Rep. René Oliveira of Brownsville, asked the department to explain what happened and provide background about the hotline service.
In its written response to Oliveira, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune under state transparency laws, the Division of Workers’ Compensation said 225 calls were made to the hotline from May 26 through June 20. Of those, 50 were made after hours, when the hotline wasn’t working.
Instead of getting the safety violations hotline, callers were being routed to a generic, after-hours electronic message operated by the Texas Department of Insurance, the division’s parent agency.
Officials say they have no way of knowing how long the problem persisted but told Oliveira the last time the division received a voicemail via the hotline was on April 12, 2013.
Oliveira said he was happy that the agency moved so quickly to fix a problem that might have prevented unsafe conditions from being discovered.
“This had not been functioning at the division. It was thwarting the will of the Legislature, and I’m glad the agency responded quickly,” Oliveira said. “Of course, we’ll never know how many people may have given up without the information they needed in the past, but now it’s working. And we’re quite pleased.”
By law, all Texas employers must post the 24-hour hotline number, 1-800-452-9595, in a conspicuous area in their place of business. Employees can make anonymous complaints on the hotline, and it’s against the law to retaliate against an employee who uses the service in good faith to report a potential violation of occupational safety laws.
The Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation has limited authority to act on tips it receives about unsafe conditions. In cases of workplace emergencies, employees are urged to call 911, contact first responders or call the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Otherwise, state authorities take down the information and then contact the employer and the workers’ compensation insurance carrier — if there is one — in an effort to remedy the situation. (Texas is the only state in the country that does not require private employers to carry workers' compensation or a private equivalent.)
Because the hotline number is so widely advertised at thousands of places of employment around the state, the Texas hotline acts as an initial point of contact for many people who are concerned about dangerous working conditions and want the government to know about it.
“Obviously, it needs to do what it’s supposed to do,” said Greeley, the division spokesman. “The purpose is for them to tell us about something that’s unsafe, that might cause an accident in the future.”