Half of Miami's Construction Workers Struggle to Afford Rent, Food, or Medical Care

Construction is one of Miami's largest industries. Where other cities rely heavily on computers, technology, universities, or medicine, Miami's economy is still stubbornly based on filling hotel rooms and ensuring construction cranes remain in the air.

Given the building industry's outsize role in the local ecosystem, you might assume Miami's construction workers are able to earn a solid living from the profession. But a study released earlier this month shows 44 percent of Miami's construction workers have trouble paying for basic necessities such as rent, food, hospital bills, utility payments, and items for their children.

"Political and economic leaders in Miami have often looked to the city’s construction industry to lead job growth and power the local economy, but there is little evidence that the industry is investing in its workforce in significant ways," the report says. "If Miami is going to combat its pressing poverty issues, leaders and policy makers must begin by ensuring that the city’s construction workers earn a living wage."

According to the study, conducted by the union-backed Workers Defense Project and the Partnership for Working Families in tandem with a University of Chicago professor, one in three Miami construction workers struggled to pay for at least one basic necessity, and one in ten said they have issues paying for all of them. Black and Latino workers are hit harder than whites, and the people tasked with building commercial projects, as opposed to residential or "heavy" projects such as highway infrastructure, are offered lesser benefits.

This flies in the face of current wisdom. Construction work is typically a union job, but according to the Partnership for Working Families, contractors, employers, and union reps haven't done a great job of keeping up with steep cost-of-living increases in Miami-Dade County.

According to the report, Miami workers earn a median of $14 per hour, with median weekly earnings totaling $654.34.

"These wages are better than the wages found in housekeeping or food service, but pale in comparison to the cost of living in Miami," the report says. More than half of the city's construction workers support at least two children or dependents — and according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a "living wage" for a person supporting two kids is anywhere from $22.72 to $28.92 an hour in South Florida. In terms of household income, analysts estimate a family with two kids would need to earn more than $77,000 per year, or $37 per hour.

One in five workers earns below the living wage for even a single, childless adult.

Likewise, 26 percent of the study's respondents said they struggle with irregular work hours, and less than a third of the workforce is given paid time off. If they're sick or need to attend your kid's graduation, they'll most likely lose their pay for the day.

Furthermore, only half of the city's workforce is eligible for employer-offered health insurance, and an even smaller number — 31 percent — actually takes it.

The study also shows that payroll fraud is a persistent problem in Miami. According to data from the Partnership for Working Families, one in four workers is intentionally misclassified as a "contractor" rather than a full employee and thus isn't eligible for nearly as many workers' protections.

"Misclassified workers do not have control over their schedules or tools as true contractors do, but they are often paid in cash and must pay their own payroll taxes like contractors," the report says. While 90 percent of full-time workers are paid overtime wages, only 40 percent of "contractors" get the same benefits. Twice as many "contractors" also said they experienced wage theft than regular employees. Incorrectly labeled "contractors" are even stripped of extremely basic items like water: Despite working in sweltering conditions half the year, 68 percent of Miami contractors said they had to bring their own water to work.

"A recent investigation of federal housing construction projects in Florida found that 15 percent of construction workers were misclassified and that the State of Florida was losing $400 million a year in lost payroll taxes, assuming the rest of the industry had a similar misclassification rate," the report says. "Responses in the Build a Better South survey suggested these figures could be much higher. "

The Partnership studied five other Southern cities: Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, and Dallas. According to the report, it's far less safe to work on Southern job sites than Northern ones: One in three workers killed on the job in 2015 died in either North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, or Florida. (Florida's fatality rate was third among the five states.)

Workers in the South are also paid significantly less than those up North. "General laborers" in New York and Chicago earn $51,000 and $59,000 per year, respectively, while the average annual salary for the same job in Dallas and Miami is only $28,000. The construction industry in those states earns an estimated $175 billion per year.

(The study also warned that injuries across the five surveyed states are likely drastically underreported. Texas was the only state studied that does not guarantee workers' compensation if a worker is hurt on a job site.)

Miami's living-wage problems don't end with construction workers. Strict laws mandate that the state is the only body that can set minimum wages. The current minimum wage is just $8.10 an hour, and the state teamed up with a trade group backed by Publix and the Walt Disney Company to sue Miami Beach when that city tried to circumvent the law. Gov. Rick Scott and his corporate teammates won earlier this year. Miami Beach has since appealed the case.

The lack of protections is particularly glaring in a city that's so dependent on construction. As the saying goes, you can keep tabs on the city's economic health by counting the number of cranes in the sky. But apparently, though the number of bulldozers has increased since the Great Recession, workers' protections haven't.

“While the construction industry is booming in the South, construction workers are barely scraping by,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, the executive director of Partnership for Working Families, said in a news release earlier in May. “The people building luxury condos in our cities often struggle to pay medical bills with no insurance, to cover living expenses with low pay, and sometimes to even get paid for their work. If we’re going to invest in construction jobs to build our communities, we must ensure that these are good jobs.”

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