NYC Construction in 2021: A Great Year. An Awful Year.

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Several notable events in 2021 impacted the New York City construction world, both immediately and in the long term.

New York City has long been one of the largest markets in the country for construction. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the city’s construction industry had added jobs for eight consecutive years through 2019; it was the fastest-growing sector during that period and saw a record of $61 billion in spending in 2019, according to The City.

 

In 2020, however, employment declined and spending spiraled downward as the industry dealt with the effects of the public health crisis, and projects faced delays and shutdowns. The city’s construction scene was one of the first industries back to work, but nevertheless spent much of 2021 slowly rebounding while dealing with long-term problems brought about by Covid-19, like supply chain disruptions.

 

But the pandemic wasn’t the industry’s only obstacle in 2021. For decades, New York City’s construction scene has been rife with tragedy and corruption, and last year was witness to several accidents, injuries, and fatalities on work sites. Other setbacks included a lack of action on Carlos’s Law.

On the positive side, landmark legislation and successful legal actions. On the negative side, a pandemic, more avoidable deaths, and stagnation on an important law.

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Carlos Moncayo, right, was a 22-year-old worker who died on a Harco Construction site that had been repeatedly cited for safety violations, including for the lack of trench-stabilizing retainers. Moments after entering an unrestrained pit like the one on the left, Mr. Moncayo was buried when the walls collapsed. He died on the site. Harco was fined just $10,000. The law to hold contractors liable for up to $1 million per lethal accident when they have outstanding relevant safety violations, has been stuck in committee in the New York Senate since 2017. 

On the other hand, there were many successes for the industry, including the passage of the Wage Theft Bill and the push of the pending PRO Act (which passed the House of Representative last March, following an endorsement by President Biden), as well as various legal actions taken against unscrupulous contractors.

 

Successful Passage of the Wage Theft Bill

Perhaps the most prominent construction-related event to occur in New York in 2021 was the successful passage of the Wage Theft Bill, signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on September 6. Introduced and championed by Sen. Jessica Ramos, it makes the prime contractor wholly responsible for any unpaid wages for all workers—no matter how far down the chain the wage theft occurs.

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Governor Kathy Hochul signs the Wage Theft bill into law before an audience of labor and government representatives. The law allows prime contractors to be penalized when the companies they hire commit wage theft – giving teeth to a once weak law.

Before the passage of this bill, wage protection laws were largely ineffective. Unscrupulous builders were winning contracts to construct large buildings by offering low bids to developers; many of them reached low numbers by giving staff below-market-value wages, or refusing to pay overtime, or cutting workers’ hourly rates. In 2017, Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance said that every week in New York City, $20 million is stolen from workers in this way. “And every day,” he said, “construction workers who risk their lives doing dangerous jobs have to wonder whether they’ll actually be paid for their work.”

 

Under the new law, though, prime contractors are finally liable to pay high penalties when the people they hire commit wage theft. Maybe this could be the beginning of the end of construction corruption.

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A 2021 report from the New York Committee on Safety and Health (NYCOSH) establishes that construction deaths continue to increase in New York City – and highlights that the vast majority of those deaths have occured on sites managed by non-union contractors.

Construction-Related Deaths in New York Continue to Rise

Each year, according data gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2020, 10.2 of every 100,000 construction workers suffer a fatal injury; that’s the third highest rate of any industry. In 2019, “construction worker” was stated as the deadliest job in New York City. It’s uncertain exactly how many construction workers die in New York each year—there is no official log—but data from watchdog agencies OSHA and ENR shows that more than 80 workers have died on the job in the past seven years. That’s roughly one worker killed every single month.

 

According to the BLS, eliminating falls on works sites would save more than 300 lives each year. Nevertheless, 2021 was witness to multiple fatal falls on NYC job sites. For instance, in May, a 49-year-old construction worker fell 60 feet from a roof to his death when the piece of concrete he was standing on gave way. OSHA cited the contractor, Richmond Construction Inc., for nine willful, repeat and serious violations of workplace safety standards and proposed penalties totaling $374,603.

 

While it’s difficult to track all of the falls and other calamities that occur on construction sites—especially non-union ones where contractors are more likely to sweep bad news under the rug—the city does keep some records, listing construction-related accident reports on the Department of Buildings (DOB) page. Each month, the DOB publishes a detailed report of accidents, and the descriptions of some of them can be chilling.

 

Fatalities are scattered throughout these reports. On November 8, 2021, an Adams European employee named Rivelino Alberto Zavala Gamoneda suffered a heart attack after a day of work and died after being transported to the hospital. Earlier, in June, OSHA cited a Bronx contractor after a 21-year-old laborer fell to his death while erecting scaffolding at a Brooklyn building project.

 

OSHA publishes summaries of reported fatalities across industries nationwide, and in 2021 multiple of the construction worker fatalities were stated to have occurred in New York City. “Worker died in excavation collapse,” states one report. “Worker died in fall down mechanical shift,” and “worker died in fall from roof,” state two others.

Construction workers continue to die on the job at an alarming rate — the apparent result of non-union contractor cost-cutting and work practices. 

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Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, announced indictments after a wall collapsed at an excavation site, killing construction worker Luis Sánchez Almonte. -- Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Legal Actions Against Bad Actors

Fortunately, 2021 was witness to some bad actors in New York’s construction industry being held properly accountable. In December, The City reported a story on civil engineer Paul Bailey, who pleaded guilty in connection with the “on-the-job death” of Luis Almonte Sánchez, a construction worker buried under rubble after a retaining wall collapsed at a Brooklyn construction site three years earlier.

 

Also in New York last year, several contractors were indicted for allegedly bribing superintendents at city housing authority developments. In September, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that nine contractors were “variously charged in multiple indictments with bribery, giving unlawful gratuities, offering a false instrument for filing and conspiracy for allegedly offering New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) employees bribes in exchange for ‘micro purchase’ contracts.” Gonzalez’s investigation found that between December 2018 through May 2021, the defendants paid bribes or gratuities to NYCHA employees (or undercover investigators) totaling approximately $20,000 in cash, in addition to items like gift cards and bottles of alcohol, in exchange for jobs. They were arraigned in September and released without bail. Gonzalez said that his office, along with the Department of Investigation (DOI)—led by Commissioner Margaret Garnett—would be working hard to ensure the investigation and prosecution of bribery schemes and other forms of corruption.

 

A couple of other instances of construction-related legal actions in 2021—among countless others—include OSHA citing ALJ Home Improvement Inc., a roofing contractor based outside New York City, in December for exposing workers to falls (the industry’s leading cause of death); by law, residential construction employers are mandated to protect workers from falls by use of guardrails and safety nets if they are working above six feet, as well as personal protective gear. That same month, the DOL also found that a Queens contractor failed to provide fall protection training to employees at a Brooklyn worksite.

 

DOB Cracks Down

Though there are actually not quite enough building inspectors on the job in New York these days, the DOB worked extremely effectively through 2021. In September, ENR reported that New York City’s “zero tolerance” safety sweeps ended up resulting in thousands of violations—and nearly 1,500 stop work orders—issued at construction sites across the five boroughs. From June through September, inspectors from the DOB visited approximately 7,500 construction sites, issuing more than 3,600 violations to contractors and other professionals for failing to keep sites safe for workers. This intensive industry sweep came after it was found that seven fatalities occurred at city construction sites during the first five months of the year.

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A surge in surprise inspections affected over 1,000 job sites in New York in October. Meanwhile, the House has passed the PRO Act, which encourages collective bargaining and aims to gain back some leverage lost by unions over several decades. It awaits action in the Senate.

Beyond 2021

The future of New York City’s construction industry can be difficult to perceive. In a perfect world, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—which Attorney General Letitia James called on the U.S. Senate to enact last August—would pass and do its job to protect workers and encourage them to unionize. And hopefully the Wage Theft Law will work to discourage bad actors from underpaying workers, though experts fear it’s likely that they will find other nefarious methods to cut costs. The record shows that non-union contractors especially will look to sidestep safety regulations, take advantage of the lack of building inspectors, or skimp on quality materials to save a buck.

 

Supply chain problems, which wreaked havoc across industries nationwide last year, will continue to affect the state of the construction industry in 2022. Last year, construction companies were forced to start paying more for building materials like paint, lumber, and hardware, and waiting weeks on end for other resources. The DOB will continue to conduct surprise safety inspections at job sites.

 

As for the NYCHA bribery case from 2021; the DOI recommended various reforms, including taking away a superintendent’s power to award small contracts and moving their job to a central office, where there is no contact with vendors. Among other changes, the DOI also recommended lowering the threshold of aggregate contracts down from $250,000 to $100,000. 2022 will be witness to whether or not the DOI’s recommendations actually enact change.

 

Finally, there are some planned construction projects to watch in New York City as 2022 progresses. Thanks to the infrastructure bill passed in November, the Gateway Tunnel—a rail tunnel between the city and New Jersey—will see phased expansion and renovation of the Northeast Corridor. New York will also see phase 2 of the Second Avenue subway project, which will include the construction of three subway stations at 106th, 116th, and 125th streets in East Harlem (and phase 3 will also likely begin this year). Other construction endeavors to watch in 2022 include the Hudson River Tunnel project, the East Side Access project, the AirTrain LaGuardia project, the Empire Station Complex, and the Sunnyside Yard Expansion.

 

Time will tell if the successes outweigh the setbacks in New York City’s construction industry this year.

 
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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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