San Antonio makes breaks and water mandatory - for city contracts only

Original idea to match Dallas and Austin watered down after industry push back and concern over HB 2127

SAN ANTONIO – On another scorching summer day Thursday, the San Antonio City Council passed a new mandate requiring contractors on city job sites to provide shade, water, and breaks for construction workers.

Anytime the heat index reaches 95 degrees or hotter, city contractors working outside will be required to provide their workers at least 15-minute breaks for every four hours worked, set up a heat relief station with shade and water, post a sign with the city requirements, and train supervisors and workers on recognizing heat hazards and how to take appropriate action. They must also submit a heat safety plan when bidding on city jobs.

Staff say violating the requirements could get a contractor kicked off the job and even barred from future work with the city. The requirements affect sub-contractors, too.

Though it is a watered-down version of Austin and Dallas’s ordinances, which cover private job sites, too, most of the city council welcomed the new rule with a 9-2 vote.

“Water breaks and the right to drink water on the job is not radical, and it’s not an overreach,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who had been a major proponent of a water break ordinance.

Councilmen Manny Pelaez (D8) and Marc Whyte (D10) opposed the measure. Whyte argued contractors already look after their employees, while Pelaez said it felt dishonest to suggest the council was making things safer without more enforcement.

City Manager Erik Walsh clarified later in the meeting that the city plans to have its construction inspectors familiar with the requirements. However, it would not be a proactive approach like regular health inspections.

The original council consideration request in April 2022 by former District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval and District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia had called for that.

However, the sweeping preemption law passed by the Texas Legislature, House Bill 2127, loomed over the discussions, as did pushback from members of the construction industry.

After the vote, Lauren Mandel, the San Antonio chapter president of the Associated General Contractors of America, said that her group felt “it was an unnecessary ordinance -- that this was already being done.”

Though she said it would not change anything for her members, Mandel said AGC’s opposition was “more about sticking up for our industry and making sure people know that we are already doing the right thing.”

On the other side, several labor union members spoke in support of the new rules ahead of the vote.

“If an employer has a piece of equipment that needs oil, gas or maintenance, he will shut the equipment off for service. Why, then, would opponents not do the same for a human life?” said Matthew Gonzales, the business manager of Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1095.

Though it was not mentioned in Thursday’s discussion, HB 2127 had affected the development of the rules. Dubbed the “Death Star bill” by opponents, the law forbids cities from creating rules across large swaths of state law.

Opponents have argued the law is too vague and broad, making it difficult to determine which local laws would be affected. One of the few concrete examples has been the water break ordinances in Dallas and Austin.

A Travis County district court judge ruled the law unconstitutional on Wednesday, just days before it is slated to take effect Friday. However, the Texas Tribune reports that the state has already appealed.

In the meantime, there does not appear to be any appetite among council members to try and expand the new water break rules to match Dallas and Austin’s ordinances.

“I think that we’re probably going to have to wait and see what happens (with the HB 2127 lawsuit), right, because it’s just one step,” Rocha Garcia said after the vote.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.