McReynolds and Nichols pass legislation to keep Texans from losing jobs to prison labor
Austin — Today the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1914 to help guarantee Texans do not lose their jobs to prison labor.
"A program to help inmates gain job skills is a good thing, but it should not come at the expense of hardworking Texas men and women," said Rep. Jim McReynolds (R-Lufkin), the author of the bill and chair of the House Corrections Committee.
The Senate sponsor, Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), pointed out that the bill is especially important during these economic times.
"The state should be encouraging job growth not unfair competition," said Nichols. "If a prison labor program threatens real jobs, we must find a way to fix it and fix it fast."
H.B. 1914 reforms the Texas' Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE program). The current program allows private industry to partner with prisons and employ inmates. While private companies supposedly pay a prevailing wage, they benefit from the use of cheap facilities, a reduced tax burden, and not paying for employee benefits. There are currently five active PIE programs across the state.
One company that contracted for prison labor in Texas was Direct Trailer. The company paid only $1 a year to lease 70,000 square feet of factory space from the prison. Direct Trailer even advertised they could sell their products for less because of a special relationship with the state utilizing inmate labor.
Direct Trailer employed offenders in the Michael Unit at Tennessee Colony to assemble trailers for 18-wheeler trucks. Lufkin Industries, Inc., located about 85 miles from Tennessee Colony, could not compete with Direct Trailer who sold its product for thousands of dollars less. Last January, Lufkin Industries closed its trailer manufacturing division, resulting in a loss of 150 jobs.
H.B. 1914 will help stop job loss and unfair competition by:
- eliminating sweetheart deals and requiring businesses using prison labor to pay a fair market value for use of facilities
- moving oversight of the program from the Prison Industry Oversight Authority to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) board
- preventing TDCJ from approving contracts resulting in job loss anywhere in Texas
- allowing employers to submit a sworn statement that their business would be hurt and jobs could be lost by approval of a specific prison industry contract
- requiring job and product descriptions be specific so employers can recognize a prison industry contract that would unfairly threaten their business
- creating notification for area businesses and posting information about programs online
- notifying the state senator and state representative in whose districts the project would be located
"By increasing transparency, accountability and the ability to address problems, this bill will help guarantee an employee in the real world will not lose their job to an inmate behind bars," said Nichols. "I'm grateful Rep. McReynolds and I can work together to protect jobs in East Texas and across the state."
McReynolds also stressed the teamwork between him and Nichols.
"Sen. Nichols and I have worked on this issue for more than two years," said McReynolds. "It feels great to see the Legislature pass these reforms today."
Groups which support the bill include the AFL-CIO, Texas Association of Business, Texas Association of Manufacturers and the American Association of State, County and Municipal Employees.