Building Back Better in Harris County
Making the most of the transformative potential of the American Rescue Plan Act
As Harris County continues to respond to the coronavirus public health emergency and recover from the pandemic-induced recession, Harris County Commissioners Court should use federal ARPA funding to create/restore quality jobs and advance equity while expanding critical public services. To that end, we believe that a substantial portion of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allotment for Harris County should be designated to accomplish four core goals in support of increasing access to good jobs jobs, access to affordable housing, and protections for public health:
- Focus on workers’ place in economic recovery by proactively expanding safety protections and career advancement opportunities
- Distribute resources directly to essential frontline workers who have risked their safety over the past year to keep the county running
- Invest in human and physical infrastructure that will both speed short-term recovery and provide lasting public benefit.
- Build capacity within the county to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of services
We believe that pursuing these goals will help reverse negative pandemic-related trends; close gaps in health, economic, and housing outcomes; positioning disproportionately impacted groups and neighborhoods for improved future outcomes.
To this end, we encourage you to consider the following proposals:
Pay increases for County employees
County employees have faced an increased risk to their health and worked tirelessly to provide services to our most vulnerable citizens. They deserve fair compensation for their hard work.
House Bill 101 provides back pay of $2/hour for state employees, dating to the federal disaster declaration on March 13, 2020. Harris County should use its ARPA funds to do the same.
All county employees who reported to an office or worked directly with the public are eligible to receive the back pay under the federal guidelines. Employees who worked strictly from home are not eligible to receive back pay for the period they worked from home but could be eligible for any portion of time that they were required to work in public.
We encourage Harris County to:
- Provide $2/hour back pay to all County employees
- Use ARPA funds to increase the pay for Harris County transit employees to bring pay to parity with comparable Metro employee by 2024
- Fund 5 days of paid sick leave for all County employees
Premium pay for essential workers
State and local governments may use recovery funds to provide premium pay directly, or through grants to private employers, to a broad range of eligible workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
To support essential workers, the County could create a Retroactive Hazard Pay Fund for Essential Workers. This Fund would provide retroactive hazard pay to low-wage essential workers in Harris County as a way to address the economic hardships they suffered throughout the pandemic. The Fund should be large enough to provide adequate relief to a large number of essential workers, and the Fund should only be made available to essential workers, not to employers or businesses, in order to ensure the ARPA money reaches the most vulnerable workers in our community who experienced the greatest hardships.
Premium pay should be provided to workers in Harris County who have maintained continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure. This includes: staff at nursing homes, hospitals and home care settings; workers at farms, food production facilities, grocery stores and restaurants; firefighters and EMS workers; plumbers and electricians; janitors and sanitation workers; truck drivers, transportation and warehouse workers, including trucking and railroad employees; employees at wireless and cable providers, including linemen, public health, and safety staff; child-care workers, educators and other school staff; correctional officers; providers of home- and community-based health care or assistance with activities of daily living; and social service and human services staff. In addition, “essential work” is defined as “work involving regular in-person interactions or regular physical handling of items that were also handled by others.”
We encourage Harris County to:
- Create a Retroactive Hazard Pay Fund administered to provide retroactive premium pay to workers in essential critical infrastructure
- Funding should be made available to workers, not to employers
- All workers should be eligible to receive assistance through this fund, even if they previously received assistance
- Funding should be prioritized for low-income eligible workers who do essential work
Improve Construction Standards on Projects to Expand Broadband and Improve Water and Sewer Facilities
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, deploying funds and resources to expand high-speed broadband access has been a top national priority. Allocating ARPA funds for this purpose is urgently needed to allow Texas to follow through on its commitment to expand broadband access for all. The passage of House Bill 5 during the 87th Regular Legislative Session was a major leap forward in laying out a path for all Texans to have access to high-speed broadband Internet.
The expansion of broadband internet access also presents a critical opportunity for Texas to create more good jobs in both rural and urban areas to boost local economies. In addition to providing access to unserved and underserved communities, compliance and public accountability measures should be in place to ensure that ARPA funds are being effectively utilized to expand broadband internet access in a manner that supports rural and urban local economies, abides by good job standards, and deploys a well-trained and safe workforce.
Recent efforts by Plumbers Local 68 to address water quality issues in Nome, Texas have also shone a spotlight on the critical need for investment in our water and sewer infrastructure, particularly in areas on the Gulf Coast damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
The American Rescue Plan provides funding to “(assist) in the critical need for investments and improvements to existing infrastructure in water, sewer, and broadband.” According to initial guidance, the U.S. Treasury encourages “recipients to ensure that water, sewer, and broadband projects use strong labor standards, including project labor agreements and community benefits agreements that offer wages at or above the prevailing rate and include local hire provisions, not only to promote effective and efficient delivery of high-quality infrastructure projects but also to support the economic recovery through strong employment opportunities for workers.”
We encourage Harris County to:
- Replicate the “Safer Water for Nome” project by working with Plumbers Local 68 and other experts to expand access to safe drinking water in communities impacted by Harvey
- Mandate that all ARPA funded infrastructure projects include provisions for OSHA 10 trainings for all workers, and OSHA 30 trainings for all supervisors to increase safety on these projects; and
- Mandate that all ARPA funded infrastructure projects incorporate requirements for water breaks for all workers.
Health and safety protections for certain frontline and essential workers who will not be protected by a federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standard or state COVID19 protections (including those who are classified or misclassified as independent contractors, like gig workers, and domestic workers employed by an individual in their own residence)
It is likely that ARP funds may be used to implement and enforce a local law establishing a COVID-19 health and safety standard for essential workers because it would directly help respond to the public health emergency. The Treasury acknowledges in its interim final rule for the ARP that “[t]he need for public health measures to respond to COVID-19 will continue in the months and potentially years to come,” including “the continuation of the vaccination campaign,” “monitoring the spread of COVID-19 variants,” and a long-term “public health response.”
One way to do this would be to provide adequate funding to create an Essential Worker Board that has a budget equal to the task it must take on: engaging low-wage workers in essential industries in shaping and setting policies that will keep them safe when at work.
This Board should be comprised of low-wage workers from essential industries in Harris County; those workers should be representative of the demographics of the workforces in those essential industries; and the Commissioners Court should give significant consideration to any policy recommendations from the Board. This should be a top investment priority for the County with the influx of ARPA funds and with the County’s emphasis on the need for solutions that meet its equity framework.
The County can significantly improve health and safety standards and working conditions for workers on its construction sites by adopting Better Builder standards and monitoring as a requirement on all future construction projects. This would require a minimal investment of the County in either (1) the training and certification of its own monitoring staff to receive Better Builder monitoring accreditation or (2) hiring a Better Builder accredited monitor as an independent, third-party contractor to provide monitoring services on County construction projects.
We encourage Harris County to:
- Establish and fund an essential workers board with labor representation from a wide range of essential worker occupations/industries
- Hire third party monitors to oversee County construction projects
Anti-retaliation protections to ensure workers can speak up about job conditions and enforce their rights safely during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Ensuring that every worker can report unsafe conditions and concerns about COVID19 at work is critical to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Harris County should consider using ARPA funds to implement a local anti-retaliation policy that, at a minimum, protects workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If workers cannot speak up about COVID-19 concerns at work, workers will continue to face unnecessary COVID-19 contagion risks at work that inevitably contribute to outbreaks and illness in the community at large. A strong local anti-retaliation policy that protects workers when they report COVID-19 concerns at work would allow more workers to speak up about COVID-19 risks and help protect everyone’s health. Such a policy would therefore directly advance the ARP’s public health objectives.
As discussed in more detail above with regards to health and safety protections during COVID-19, ARP funds can be used to fund staff who are responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency. This can presumably include staff who would handle the implementation and enforcement of a local anti-retaliation policy, including outreach and education.
Provide parents with the support they need to return to work.
During the pandemic, parents have had to juggle caring for small children while still trying to work from home. Child care is critical for our economy. While COVID aid has steered funds towards child-care programs, additional grants should be added for this purpose. Many child-care providers face the possibility of permanent closure as decreased enrollment combines with the higher costs of maintaining a safe workplace. To get Texas back to normal, parents need child-care providers. As Texas workers rejoin the workforce, they will need child-care providers to remain in business.
Funds should be used to expand the Childcare Assistance program that was established in 2020 by commissioners court.
Addressing Housing Instability
Harris County has been at the epicenter of the housing instability crisis over the last year. The Texas Supreme Court established a temporary eviction moratorium and Harris County established an emergency rental assistance program to provide direct assistance to renters facing financial ramifications from COVID-19.
Harris County unions, led by IATSE Local 896 and 51 and IUPAT DC 88, have been deeply involved in the fight to keep working people housed. In Harris County, the union-led Keep Harris Housed coalition has organized over 20 events to connect vulnerable tenants with legal aid and help applying for rental assistance. As of the end of September, over 7,000 tenants have received help at these events. Additionally, union members and community allies have knocked over 40,000 doors to provide tenants with information about legal protections and assistance since last September.
The American Rescue Plan Act gives Harris County an opportunity to expand on the effective collaboration already happening to keep residents in their homes during this ongoing crisis.
We recommend the following actions by Harris County:
- Increase funding for direct tenant assistance through the Houston/Harris County Emergency Rental Assistance program, and change qualification standards to enable tenants to self-declare eligibility for assistance and allow funds to be released directly to tenants if landlords refuse to participate in program;
- Increase funding for mortgage relief and integrate direct assistance into Houston/Harris County program to increase ease of access for low-income mortgage holders;
- Increase funding for community Emergency Rental Assistance navigators to get rental and mortgage assistance to tenants quickly;
- Increase funding for eviction intervention in justice of the peace and county courts at law by legal aid organizations or community non-profits;
- Establish and fund a right to counsel in all civil housing cases where plaintiff requests an eviction judgment but does not include any claims of violence or property damage or foreclosure cases where the mortgage holder can provide evidence of income lost due to the pandemic;
- Utilize 100% FEMA reimbursement to fund temporary housing for un-housed Texans and create grants to local municipal housing departments to administer intervention;
- Encourage employers to give workers paid time off to apply for housing assistance if they have received a notice to vacate or eviction filing; and
- Encourage the state legislature to pass and enforce legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against voucher holders, i.e., source of income protection. Discrimination against voucher holders is a major barrier to the effectiveness of this program and source of income protections help address that discrimination.