What Happened to Carlos' Law?
The popular bill that will hold contractors responsible for lethal negligence has been stalled in the New York Senate since 2017.
Carlos Moncayo, left, was a 22-year-old worker who died on a Harco Construction site that had been repeatedly cited for safety violations. His family, at right, reacted to the court verdict following a criminal trial of Harco's managers.
Why has Carlos’ Law, a popular bill that would vastly help protect the lives of New York City’s construction workers and hold negligent contractors accountable for safety violations, been stuck on the State Senate floor for more than four years?
Council member Francisco Moya, who represents the city’s 21st district, wrote Carlos’ Law in 2016, when he was in the State Assembly; he wanted to hold contractors of the city’s construction sites properly accountable when workers are killed on the job. “The skyline of the city of New York should be built on the sweat—not the blood—of its workers,” said Moya. “Safety should be the number one priority on every construction site, from a two- or- three-family house to a skyscraper.”
Carlos’ Law passed in the New York Assembly in 2017 and is supported by a majority of Senate Democrats, including Senator Jessica Ramos, Senator James Sanders (the bill’s current sponsor), Senator Jamaal Bailey, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Yet it has been on and off the congressional agenda for years, and today remains tied up in the Code Committee.
He Couldn't Risk Losing His Job
Carlos’ Law is named for 22-year-old Carlos Moncayo, an Ecuadorean immigrant (and constituent of Moya’s district) who was buried alive at a construction site in New York City’s meatpacking district in April 2015 while working in an unreinforced 13-feet-deep trench that had been cited by safety inspectors.
The contractor responsible for the safety violations that led to Moncayo’s death was Harco Construction, in conjunction with Sky Materials. The managers of the Ninth Avenue site had for months ignored repeated warnings from inspectors that their site was incredibly dangerous. On the morning of April 6, 2015, according to the New York Times, an inspector visited the site, noticed a trench without proper earth-retaining equipment, and issued a warning. Mere hours later, the walls of the trench collapsed on Moncayo, who was pronounced dead on the scene.
“Carlos was an undocumented immigrant paying to keep his family in their home and to put food on the table,” said Moya, adding that Moncayo was hesitant to climb into the trench, but couldn’t risk losing his job. “They threaten him, he gets in there, and within a few minutes the whole thing collapses and he dies.”
Harco had ignored repeated safety violations when they sent Carlos Moncayo into an unsecured earthen pit. “They threaten him, he gets in there, and within a few minutes the whole thing collapses and he dies.”
A video capture shot the morning of Mr. Moncayo's death shows a 13-feet deep trench with no retainers. Above is an example of the type of earth retaining trench wall that is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, for construction in trench depths of five feet or more.
The Penalty for Causing a Death: A Small Fine
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Harco approximately $10,000 (the maximum fine possible) for this negligence. Moncayo’s death sparked some public scrutiny and eventually Harco was convicted of manslaughter in the second degree, criminally negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment; a contractor facing so many consequences was a surprise to the industry. But despite these criminal convictions, the Moncayo family, who faced the tragic loss of a son and brother, reportedly did not receive any compensation.
Manhattan District Attorney at the time, Cyrus Vance, said a maximum fine of $10,000 "does not meaningfully deter companies from this type of misconduct. For companies like Harco Construction, $10,000 is Monopoly money."
“Everybody is looking to make the most money possible,” said Senator Jessica Ramos, who has represented New York’s 13th district since 2018, of the current climate of the non-union construction space. “Unfortunately, that is done on the backs of day laborers.” Ramos, who has been encouraging Carlos’ Law reintroduction to the Senate, was an early supporter of the bill, in part due to her personal connection to the cause. Growing up in Queens, she saw many of her peers lose their fathers in construction accidents. “It’s not a situation that’s foreign to me, and it’s grossly unfair that while my friend grew up without her father, the contractor behind that project is living it up in Manhattan,” she said.
Indeed, the backbone of Carlos’ Law is about rejecting inequality and valuing human lives. “We want these lives to be respected and ensure that no one is treated on the job as if they're disposable,” Ramos explained, adding that her district has been “heavily impacted by unscrupulous contractors who look to cut corners on safety in order to save a few cents” in recent years, even during the pandemic. “They put greed over the safety of human beings,” she said.
Carlos’ Law ultimately seeks to bestow between $500,000 and $1 million worth of fines upon companies whose safety violations lead to workers dying on the job. This is a stark difference from the aforementioned maximum fine of $10,000 that contractors currently face with ease. Holding at-fault construction companies responsible for worker deaths through harsher penalties would drastically change the landscape of New York City’s construction industry. Carlos’ Law, according to the New York State Senate’s overview of the bill, would name worker endangerment as third-, second-, and first-degree felonies. “In writing this bill, I wanted to bring justice to Carlos Moncayo, his family, and every single brother and sister that we have lost because of those who chose profits over people,” said Moya.
Growing up in Queens, Senator Ramos saw her friend lose her father in a construction accident. "It’s grossly unfair that while my friend grew up without her father, the contractor behind that project is living it up in Manhattan.”
The 2021 annual safety report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, NYCOSH, explains that construction deaths in New York City have gone up each year for the past 3 years and highlights that non-union job sites are especially dangerous for workers.
The Future of Carlos’ Law
The issue of Carlos’ Law being stuck in limbo in the Senate is extremely topical. The annual construction fatality report released this past March by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) found that worker deaths on construction sites increased for a third year in a row in 2019. 78% of those deaths reportedly happened on non-union construction sites, where corners are often cut—and safety measures skimped on—in order to reduce costs.
So, why hasn’t Carlos’ Law been passed yet? Despite the horrifying prevalence of this issue across New York City, there appears to be a lack of public understanding and outrage. “You never hear a public outcry,” said Moya. “With any other industry, we’d see outrage, we'd have hearings, we would be doing everything we could, but it's because this is what the consensus thinks is the price to work in the construction industry.”
Though there are activist groups who rally in support of unions, spreading awareness is difficult. It seemingly all ties to the fact that many non-union construction workers in the city are undocumented immigrants (though that exact statistic is unspecified). According to a report by the Center for Construction Training and Research published earlier this year, the increase in fatal injuries on construction sites was particularly pronounced among Hispanic workers, rising nearly 90 percent from 2010 to 2019.
Ramos said that the bill should be adjusted to create a “comfortable environment” for immigrant and undocumented workers who might be wary to report wrongdoing in fear of retaliation. And Moya added that the city should stop working with contractors that have bad reputations. “We need to ensure that the city doesn't do business with any developer or contractor that has a history of worker safety issues or death,” he said.
Ramos is optimistic that Carlos’ Law will gain some traction in 2022. “I would love to hear [Senator James Sanders] say this will be his number one priority in the next legislative session,” she said, adding that while the real estate and contracting industries might not be interested in the bill’s passage, “this is about saving lives and making sure that workers can come home to their families at night.”
Moya is likewise hopeful, stating that if the bill passes next year it will certainly lead to sweeping changes across New York State. “I do believe that we have a real moment here, as we start re-engaging again on our legislative priorities,” he said. “This is a real test to see where we prioritize the very workers that are the ones moving our economy and continuing to build our city, making it the greatest city in the world. We need to give teeth to the prosecutors to go after the bad actors in the industry, and we need to show why unionization is so critical to workers.”
Ultimately, the story of Carlos’ Law urges the city, the state, and the country to push toward a safer future with union-built construction sites. “Construction is very dangerous work and ensuring that workers receive state-certified training and understand their rights and know that they have a place to go in order to file grievances, and for there to be a procedure that's responsive to their work experience, is really important,” Ramos said. “We want union density in the construction industry to grow. And if we don't fix these things now, when will we ever have another opportunity?”
If you’re shopping for real estate in New York, ask your sales rep, “Is this a union building?” Because union-built matters.
"We want union density in the construction industry to grow. And if we don't fix these things now, when will we ever have another opportunity?"
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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