It’s Time To Protect the Inspectors

The city’s unionized inspectors are getting squeezed by work volume, stress, and sometimes angry contractors. If we want safe buildings, we should protect them.

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New York Department of Building Commissioner Eric A. Ulrich. The DOB web site says he "will use his long and proven track record to raise safety standards on job sites, deliver customer service New Yorkers deserve, and make the building industry the most sustainable in the nation." He'll need a contract agreement with the DOB inspectors to accomplish those goals.

Building inspectors are a crucial cog in the wheel that is New York City’s teeming construction industry. They ensure that safety measures are met across the five boroughs’ active job sites. As non-union work has proliferated here, and as the term “construction worker” has become synonymous with injuries, accidents, and deaths, inspectors’ jobs have become ever-more essential. In its effort to address these safety concerns, the city has consequently increased inspector workloads.

 

But it may now be the inspectors who are suffering emotional, financial, and even physical harm at work. Though their ranks have been expanded to 800, according to the DOB they must supervise more than 40,000 active construction sites across New York City, making for daunting individual caseloads. Inspectors say they are underpaid by city employee standards—a stress that is compounded by the threat of potential assaults from those angered by fines and stoppages. These factors make the current situation unacceptable to the inspectors’ union.

 

So, in August, the International Union of Operating Engineers’ (IUOE) Local 211 labor union—which services employees of the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) and Department of Housing Preservation & Development as inspectors—published a list of contract demands, many of them addressing hardships like low pay and danger on the job.

800 inspectors, 40,000+ construction sites, do the math. Something's got to give or the safety of our workers and our buildings will suffer

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“The dedicated union members of the Department’s inspection workforce play a critical role in promoting public safety and quality of life standards for all New Yorkers,” a DOB spokesperson told Union-Built Matters. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a safe and rewarding working environment for everyone who works here.”

 

Inspectors’ safety on the job

New York City’s building inspectors have safety concerns not just because their work takes them to open construction zones, but because they could be subject to criminal assaults during inspections. While a spokesperson for the DOB said assaults on inspectors are “a rare occurrence,” that doesn’t mean inspectors should let their guards down. “It can get very scary,” said one anonymous inspector, detailing how emotions can rise after a fine or stop work order is issued. “Usually it’s just yelling, but occasionally there are threats. And it’s only because of luck and good fortune that more people haven’t gotten injured or worse.”

 

The DOB instructs inspectors to “immediately leave the area” if they are confronted by an aggressive individual while on a job site. When an assault is reported, the DOB refers it to the NYPD and the site and contractor are flagged so that future inspections can be conducted with police escort. But the Local 211’s demands suggest more is needed: “Provide assault protection for field inspectors. Better the follow-up on crimes committed [against] them by outsiders while in performance of their given duties in and out of the offices.” The anonymous inspector stated that inspectors do not have the same legal standing as other uniformed city workers, so most times, “if you do get hit, the cops won’t make an arrest.”

 

The Local 211 also proposes bringing back “two-man areas, especially at nighttime and in high-crime areas,” to lower the likelihood of an assault. Frighteningly, inspectors say in their demands, they often find themselves “fearing for their lives and have no backup.”

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There are 800 inspectors—most of them new to the job—overseeing more than 40,000 construction sites in the city. It is a daunting caseload for each inspector.

Important work, underpaid

DOB inspectors are paid a base salary of $61,800 when hired, according to the department. They get time off, paid holidays, health insurance, retirement plans, and savings programs, among other benefits. But raises are few and far between, which keeps inspectors stuck in low-income situations.

 

If the entry level pay is raised, though, and 30-percent compounded increases are given over three years—as is suggested in the list of demands—it would create “a step plan for employees” so they could “reach top-of-grade salaries” and be able to better cope with the cost of living. The Local 211 suggests the base salary be increased to $70,000 annually and suggests yearly raises to make it feasible to move up in the industry.

 

“We should have pay parity with the other uniformed titles—police, firefighters, corrections officers, sanitation workers,” the anonymous inspector said. “They top out at $82,000 after five years.”

 

The inspectors also seek an annuity plan, and to receive the hazard pay for frontline workers that was promised by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Additionally, inspectors are calling for the city to “provide faster reimbursement of moneys owed to employees” and are requesting increased car allowance money (or simply stopping use of personal vehicles).

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The systems that inspectors examine include boilers, concrete, cranes and derricks, emergency medical teams, elevators, facades, padlocks, parking garages and areas, retainer walls, signage, barriers, access and egress, local law codes, and much more.

Experience and training matter

In their list of demands, the Local 211 wants to raise the minimum entry-level experience from two to five years, and seeks more intensive training for emerging inspectors.

 

The anonymous DOB inspector stated that the Level 1 inspector program was created due to a lack of qualified inspectors in the field. “They should have had the Level 1 inspectors partner up with the Level 2 inspectors,” he said. “But instead, as soon as they finish training, Level 1 inspectors are sent out on their own, doing the labor of a second-level worker—minus the pay and experience.”

 

Currently, inspectors receive twelve to fourteen weeks of training—six of them in class and six to eight of them shadowing more experienced inspectors—before starting out. “Honestly, we should have six months of in-class training and then six months of training under a senior inspector,” said the inspector. “There’s a lot to learn.”

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LOCAL 211 IUOE
List of demands for O.L.R.

  • Provide assault protection for field inspectors. Better the follow-up on crimes committed to them by outsiders while in performance of their given duties in and out of the offices.

  • 30/" compounded pay increase, over 3 years.

  • Pay increase for service increments.

  • Provide a step plan for employees, so they can reach top of grade salaries which are offered at entry but then have no real way of getting to it.

  • Create an annuity plan.

  • Hazzard pay for work done during COVlD-19, as requested by then Gov. Cuomo and then Mayor DeBlasio.

  • Provide proper and better training to all City inspectors on dealing with Emergency city and Global catastrophes, 911, Gas explosion, Sandy, COVOD-19, Global warming. Help them to be better prepared to assist in there duly giving functions.

  • Have agencies provide and allow union members, Executive and Delegates t hour off in pm to attend union meetings twice a month.

  • Adherence to Collective bargaining agreement of having chapel meetings in Boro offices to discuss union matters, which have been take away due to RTFF program and Inspectors not required to return to offices.

  • Collective bargaining agreements not followed, Union space with availability to phone and bulletin board not being provided in agency offices, blocking communications with Unions.

  • Option for Inspectors to change into and out of their uniforms at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day.

  • Provide assistance and training to booster morale.

  • Provide incentives to combat the departure from the agency better pay scale for entry level Inspectors and then yearly raises make it easier to reach top of grade salaries which we have no way to get there.

  • Return the 5-year Job requirement for Inspector entry.

  • Supervisory test requirements for open positions.

  • Revisit Entry lnspectors levels 1,2,3(DOB). Inspectors working out of title, 1's doing work of full level Inspectors.

  • Inspectors who have reach their anniversary on moving forward have been kept in levels with no way to be moved on time.

  • Improve training to better you H.p.D. Inspectorial staff.

  • Provide conflict resolution training for all City Inspector field staff.

  • Better sensitivity training for management personal positions.

  • Bring back two-man areas, especially at nighttime and high crime areas in day tours. (Inspectors are fearing for their lives and have no back up).

  • Provide better defense of Inspectors who are attacked in the field and made it a crime to assault Inspectors.

  • Provide faster reimbursement of moneys owed to employees. (uniform allowance, car allowance, etc.)

  • Do away with unnecessary and forced Transfers.

  • Stop use of personal vehicles or raise the car allowance money from $g.40 to $20.00. Gas prices and insurance have tremendously increased.

  • Pay for use of city equipment in taking home and plugged into employee’s personal electrical energy, laptops, phones and tablets.

  • Use of city equipment while off duty. If you require Inspectors to go on their equipment to check the days route before their start time, then state their time as soon as they go on. (Work for no pay).

  • Provide better quality and quantity Uniforms for Inspectors (HpD).

  • Provide work shoes for Inspectors (HpD), as per OSHA requirements.

  • Increase pay for ERT Inspectors as past practice. . Pay overtime for every half hour.

  • No restrictions on time of year an inspector takes vacation. o MetroCard's for transportation to and from work (like other agencies)

  • Flex schedule options

  • Keep inspectors and supervisor at offices close to their homes

  • Right to religious observation

  • Uniform short-pants

  • Double the assignment differential for the lead unit because Inspectors work alone and do double the work. o Increase base salary to $70,000

  • I standard set of instructions on how to deal with irate Tenants and landlords. t More safety precautions for infectious diseases eg testing and vaccine ACCCSS.

  • Extra pay for responsibility of taking home cars or xrf this is lead unit specific.

  • Properly fitting uniforms for ALL women and men.

Some entry standards were lowered to add a multitude of inspectors to the department. For example, the minimum construction experience was lowered to two years from five. Also, new inspectors have been forced into responsibilities above their experience level.

Don’t Overlook the Inspectors

New York City has made a renewed push for construction industry safety in recent years, ratifying local laws 78 and 196 (concerning reporting work incidents and completing OSHA training) in 2017, passing Carlos’s Law in the state legislature and enacting the Wage Theft Prevention Act in 2021, conducting last year’s “zero tolerance” safety blitz, and publishing regular safety-related enforcement bulletins,

 

In the eyes of the anonymous inspector, all of these accomplishments are good for the industry, but the city must act to support the inspectors who will enforce most of the changes. “Our field is getting more complex, so the city will need to hire more of us to get the job done and protect the public.”

 

Low pay, minimal growth opportunity, and a low safety assurance on the job are not factors that will attract and keep the type and number of inspectors the city needs to inspect its innumerable buildings. If not enough is done, the inspector predicts the “continuing deterioration of wages and working conditions in the increasingly non-union construction industry.”

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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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