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Let’s End the Steroid Era in New York City Construction

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When cheaters are allowed to cheat, it’s not only the honest players who suffer. Cheating hurts everyone.

We’ve established here on Union-Built Matters, beyond any reasonable doubt that as New York City construction booms, many unscrupulous non-union contractors are lining their pockets by committing crimes against vulnerable and unrepresented employees – and too many of those workers have died as a result.


But these tactics continue because they allow bad-acting contractors to lead a race to the bottom on project bids which is where they win. At the bottom. When unscrupulous builders know they can steal worker wages, ignore safety requirements, and skimp on materials in the name of saving money, that allows them to offer lower and lower estimates for open projects.


One observer of the situation said, “It’s like steroids in baseball. When a bunch of pitchers and hitters are allowed to get away with cheating, the honest guys who won’t cheat — how do they compete?”

"When a bunch of pitchers and hitters are allowed to cheat, the honest guys who won't cheat, how do they compete?"

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Union contractors carry some built-in expenses that non-union contractors don't. Unions require annual training in subjects like green buildings and new safety standards. 

This is the situation that unionized contractors find themselves in because they respect the law and the well-being of their members. Unions adhere to federal, state and city requirements. Unions guarantee a living wage, health benefits, and continual training for trade professionals. These practices make union construction sites safe and union buildings better-built. They also cost money that many non-union contractors refuse to spend. So in the race to the bottom, unions lose.


This reality harmfully affects the safety of our work force, the size of our state’s tax revenue, and the quality of the buildings we live and work in. The race to the bottom and the proliferation of non-union work here is bad for all New Yorkers.


Here are some recommendations for ending New York City construction industry’s version of the steroid era, and as a result, saving the lives of many construction workers.

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One way to help end the current "steroid era" in New York City construction is to ask who built your building.

Ask if Your Building is Union-Built

When shopping for real estate here, ask your realtor, “Who built the building?” If it was built by unions, have confidence that all the highest safety, construction, and material standards were maintained. If it was built by non-unions, well, it’s very hard to say how solid the structure is and how humane the environment was for the workers who built it.

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The vice president of the New York City Central Labor Council, Gary LaBarbera, speaks at a rally to drive union membership in the city.

Help More Workers Get Into Unions

Because working in a union is safe and working under non-union management is much more dangerous, any effort that allows more tradespeople to enter a union will save lives. That means passing Bill S3063 to establish the employment privacy act and prohibit the use of the federal electronic employment verification system (E-Verify) to check employment status before someone can be hired. “Your immigration status shouldn’t preclude you from making an honest living and advancing your career,” said Senator Jessica Ramos, sponsor of the bill.

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Lawyers for Harco Construction look demoralized as the "guilty of manslaughter" verdict is announced in the trial courtroom. Harco was the primary contractor on the job where a 22-year-old worker, Carlos Moncayo, was killed in an accident caused by ignored safety violations.

Pass Carlos’ Law

It also means passing Carlos’ Law (S3314A) which will require stiff financial penalties for contractors who ignore safety violations and a worker is injured or killed as a result. The current maximum fine levied against the violating contractor for such a violation is now about $10,000, which former New York City District Attorney Cyrus Vance called “monopoly money” for wealthy builders.


"In some cases unfortunately it's a part of their calculation," said Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). "That they know that the fines will be less expensive than the cost of doing a job properly, most safely, without cutting corners."


Carlos’ Law is named for a 22-year old Ecuadorian construction worker Carlos Moncayo who was killed on a Harco Construction work site where numerous safety code violations had been documented. The law ups that meager penalty to between $500,000 and $1 million charged to contractors for each injury and/or death that occurs on these work sites.

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An unnamed worker died while working on the construction of the Aman Hotel & Residences on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The non-unionized victim fell through a poorly protected hole and landed one floor below, was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation of “moderate injuries,” and eventually died. The worker’s sex, name, age, ethnicity, nationality and immigration status are all missing from the public databases at the city, state and federal levels. Bill S8828 corrects that injustice

Amplify The New Registry of Construction Workplace Fatalities

The New York Legislature recently passed bill S8828, also sponsored by Senator Ramos, which establishes a publicly available registry of all construction fatalities that occur on the job in New York. The registry will track the names of the victims as well as the conditions surrounding their deaths. A spokesperson for Ramos said the registry will be opened imminently. The real impact may come from making information about these deaths available for all to see.

“With information publicly available, workers and other industry stakeholders can better gauge a contractor’s safety performance,” said New York construction attorney Michael Metz-Topodas. “Reputational concerns about publicly available safety information can lead to increased adherence to safety regulations, sometimes called ‘compliance by shame.’"

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Local Law 196 sets a minimum number of hours of annual safety training that all construction workers must complete. The minimum, 40 hours, is much lower than most unions require of their members, but experts believe many non-union contractors completely ignore the requirement for their own staffs.

Enforce Local Law 196

Another way to end the “construction steroid era” and make job sites safer is by enforcing Local Law 196, the 2017 New York City act that mandates every construction worker receive 40 hours of safety and other training every year. Without this very minimal amount of safety training, no worker should be allowed on a dangerous construction site in this city. But enforcement of the law, which is managed by the DOB, is difficult because of the extremely high workload of the 800 building inspectors in the department.

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The DOB inspectors enter the job overwhelmed by an ever-growing case load. As enforcers of worker safety and construction quality standards, inspectors play a critical role in ensuring our skyline is built safely and peoperly.

Hire More Inspectors

Which leads to a final thought: The city should fund more building inspectors, especially people with significant construction experience, to improve oversight of this continually growing industry. One source within the DOB explains that inspectors are overwhelmed by an ever-growing workload and enforcement of industry standards is becoming increasingly difficult.


The strain on the system has opened the door for bad-acting contractors to cut corners on quality and safety to raise their profits.


All these efforts need public support – your voice.


Let’s end the construction industry’s “steroid era.” Let’s make all contractors adhere equally to the construction and pay standards set by our federal, state and city authorities. Let’s speak up now and save our skyline as well as some lives.

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