Skip to main content

In Dallas, A Push to Give Some Workers a Break

Safety advocates staged a “thirst strike” on the steps of Dallas City Hall Tuesday, calling on city leaders to guarantee periodic rest breaks for construction workers who toil for hours in the city’s sweltering summers.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
Lead image for this article

While installing a hardwood floor on a sweltering day last July in Melissa, about 50 miles northeast of Dallas, 25-year-old Roendy Granillo began to fill ill and asked for a water break, his co-workers later told Granillo's father. But the job's contractor expected him to keep working, they said.

Hours later, Granillo was dead from heat stroke.

Now, Gustavo Granillo is rallying to protect workers like his son. He was among those Tuesday staging a “thirst strike” on the steps of Dallas City Hall, calling on city leaders to guarantee periodic rest breaks for construction workers toiling for hours in the summer heat.

“He didn’t drink water, he didn’t get a break, and that’s the problem,” Granillo, who works in construction in North Texas, said in Spanish. “We aren’t given the time to take a break or drink water the way we should.”

Texas doesn’t give workers the right to rest breaks. Austin is the only city that does, specifically for construction workers. The city passed an ordinance five years ago requiring that workers get 10-minute breaks every three-and-a-half hours.

Led by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, advocates hope Dallas will follow suit when its City Council takes up a similar proposal in the coming months.

“It has a huge payoff,” said Phillip Kingston, a Dallas City Councilman who said a significant amount of construction in the city occurs in his district. “The young man who died wasn’t working in my district, but he could have been,” he added, referring to Granillo.

This is not the first time Dallas leaders have considered the issue. Last year, the council debated a proposal ensuring 10-minute breaks for construction workers every four hours. The legislation stalled, but Kingston hopes new faces on the council will bolster its chances this time around.

“I definitely want to get it done before it gets hot again,” he said.

Some of his colleagues are less supportive. Lee Kleinman, a fellow councilman, dismissed the proposal as “hysteria over heat,” calling it difficult to enforce and potentially costly.

“Shouldn’t we be dealing with, you know, loose dogs and stuff like that, and homeless encampments?” he asked. “There’s plenty on the city’s plate.”

Echoing critics in the industry, Kleinman said workplace safety falls squarely in the domain of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Dallas should keep it that way.

“The industry is obviously not against the idea of folks having rest breaks,” said Phil Crone, executive officer of the Dallas Builders Association. But if the city regulates some aspects of workplace safety while OSHA regulates others, “it’s going to cause confusion,” he said.

Crone’s group has instead suggested focusing on educating workers about heat-related dangers.

Heat kills at least several Texas workers every year. At least seven workers across all industries have died from heat-related causes in Texas this year, according to data collected by OSHA. (The data is far from comprehensive, the agency admits.)

That count includes Granillo and 53-year-old Jasso Ramirez, who died while working road construction in July. It also includes a 59-year-old Hispanic man who died earlier this year while sorting cans at a recycling facility. (OSHA said his name was not available because his family had not yet been notified).

OSHA called that temporary worker’s death a “preventable loss of life” and fined the facility $13,800.

Federal law doesn’t require rest breaks, but some states do. California, Nevada and Kentucky are among those mandating paid 10-minute breaks every four hours in many industries. Employers in Texas, however, do not even have to give their workers meal breaks under the law.

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, tried to make some headway on the issue during the 2015 legislative session. He proposed mandatory rest breaks for construction workers doing work paid for by taxpayer dollars. Violators would pay $100 a day in fines.

The bill didn’t get a hearing, in part because of the lack of industry support, Rodriguez said.

“It seemed to me like a simple measure to pass,” he said, calling it good for business. “[Workers] get a rest break, they get an opportunity to drink water, and are able to work more efficiently.”

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said there’s no problem to fix, and that he “would challenge the very premise" that workers don't already get 30-minute breaks on the job. Making it law won't accomplish much, he said, and there's no reasonable way to enforce the measure.

Advocates disagree.

In 2013, a survey by Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas at Austin estimated that 39 percent of construction workers in Texas don't receive rest breaks. Some 15 percent of those surveyed reported seeing a coworker faint in the heat.

Safety advocates say Austin’s 2010 ordinance has trimmed those numbers locally.

Under Austin's policy, an inspector in the city’s code department visits construction sites each day, asking workers whether they’re getting breaks as required and making sure that employers display a sign outlining the policy.

Those duties currently fall to a temporary city employee, but the department plans to hire a full-time inspector in the coming weeks, said Matthew Noriega, assistant division manager of the code department.

The city first issues warnings to companies that don’t comply, and the ordinance gives it the power to fine employers who continue to flout the rule up to $500 per day.

The department has performed more than 560 inspections over the life of the policy and issued 184 warning letters — all of them for failing to post the rules on site, said Noriega. The department has not fined anyone.

For the most part, Noriega said, employers are following the requirements, and the department is getting fewer complaints.

“They don’t feel like it’s something that’s going to put a damper on their work,” he said of Austin construction companies.  

Gustavo Granillo said his current boss is happy to give him breaks whenever he asks, but he has run into trouble in the past. Following Roendy’s death, he said it’s his responsibility to call for change.

“I feel it in my heart that my son supports me, he’s telling me to move forward so that what happened to him won’t happen to another worker,” Granillo said. “The way he died was very unjust.”  

Julián Aguilar contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Association of Business was a sponsor in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Yes, I'll donate today

Explore related story topics

Economy State government Texas Legislature