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As Construction Industry Booms Non-Union Laborers Exist on a Pittance

Poorly paid non-union workers build affordable housing that they can’t afford.


While unprecedented amounts of money flows into the New York City construction business, many non-union laborers still sweat out meager incomes and can't afford to live in the homes they are building, even when it's affordable housing. 

By the end of this year, annual spending on construction in New York City will reach $83B, an increase of $13B from 2022. That fact comes from a new report by the New York Building Congress, an association that promotes the building industry here. But while construction spending is skyrocketing, many of the people doing the construction – the non-union laborers – continue to suffer from the scourge of low wages.


The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average salary for a non-union New York City construction worker is $40,000. These wages most often do not include the costs for benefits, sick pay or vacation time, social security contributions or retirement. All of those costs must be borne by the worker who is making a salary that’s $20,000 below the national average while living and working in the country’s most expensive city.


It gets worse

Union-Built Matters spoke with one construction estimator about these statistics, and he said, “That bureau data on salaries is very misleading.” He requested that we not use his name because he deals with non-union contractors and did not want to affect his status with them.


He said of the labor statistics, “They base that number on reported average hourly pay,” emphasizing the word reported. “But so many non-union workers are paid off the books – not reported – so their bosses can avoid taxation and other costs. Many non-union workers are undocumented and don’t want their status known. So they take cash instead of a check, which is unreported. And a lot of these non-union builders actually prefer it that way. Puts them in control to set the price. So I believe that non-union salary number is really a lot lower than $40K.”

"Unions have ways to meet costs that are above board and that are good to their members. Non-unions find other ways to cut costs, much less productive ways, which is why lawmakers have to get involved.”

But even non-union workers who are on the books have concerns about their earning prospects. Here’s an excerpted comment on Reddit from a New York City non-union laborer.


“I just started in the trade, commercial construction, and I’m wondering if I’ve made a mistake… There are several guys at my company with more than 10 years of experience making ~30hr. Some with 5+ years are making $25/hr... No paid healthcare, no pto beyond sick leave, no pension…”


Living in a shelter while building affordable housing for others

Meanwhile, Labor Press cites non-union laborers who are living in New York City shelters while they work on affordable housing construction projects. The post says these workers have no hope of ever living in one of the completed projects because the money they’re making isn’t enough.


It’s stories like these that have driven some New York lawmakers to propose rules that will raise wages for non-union construction workers, some of whom are making as little as $15/hour with no benefits. The Construction Justice Act, proposed by Local 79, would require that construction wages and benefits to be worth at least $40 per hour at certain housing projects, with at least $25 of that being wages. The bill would affect any housing project that receives public financial assistance. The union is still negotiating the thresholds for that financial assistance and the number of apartments that would trigger the requirements. Developers could avoid these rules by hiring workers from a sanctioned New York State apprenticeship program - a provision that would encourage the hiring of union workers.


The Archer Green Apartments in Jamaica Queens is one example of new affordable housing that may be out of reach for the non-union laborers who might have helped construct it. -- Rendering courtesy of Marin Architects

The estimator we talked to leaned into that thought. “Union apprentices are a great cost-saving on many jobs. They come with very experienced supervision, but at a lower cost. Unions have ways to meet costs that are above board and that are good to their members. Non-unions find other ways to cut costs, much less productive ways, which is why lawmakers have to get involved.”


He added, “It’s crazy we even need laws like this one. With so much money pouring into the industry, there should be enough there for everyone to be doing well — well enough to afford a home here. But we have to account for the bad non-union influence on all this. If everybody hired union, we wouldn’t have people living in shelters while they build affordable housing that they themselves will never be able to afford to live in.” 

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