The Real Cost of Poor Pay
Part 3 of 3: The Gritty Truth About Construction Pay
The construction business is booming like never before. So why are so many construction workers making a poverty wage? Ask the non-union contractors who employ them and developers who set the tone.
When examining the underbelly of New York City’s construction world, it’s clear that numerous factors contribute to how non-union laborer’s wages are decided. The current high costs of building materials (stemming from global supply chain problems) and the surplus of workers (despite an onslaught of residential projects across the five boroughs) are just a couple of things that have notably driven workers’ pay downward.
Over the years, the fact that much of the city’s building sites are non-union and low-wage has had a significant impact on New York’s overall construction industry, as union contractors have been forced to lower their rates to compete for jobs. As Council member Carmen De La Rosa, chair of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, put it: “The lack of union workers on construction sites has a direct impact on the wages, benefits, safety, and quality of work.”
Union Members Earn More: Here's Why
There are reasons union pay is higher; unions require trades training (sometimes years of apprenticeship, which is updated annually) as well as safety training. Because of this, union workers are offered a guaranteed living wage for full-time work along with benefits and representation, with everything paid for properly.
“The lack of union workers on construction sites has a direct impact on the wages, benefits, safety, and quality of work.”
– Council member Carmen De La Rosa
Standard construction worker wage information is accessible to anyone on the state's Department of Labor website. There is no similar accounting of what non-union contractors pay their workers.
Union workers’ wages are published annually on the city’s website, with numbers based on Davis-Bacon labor standards. According to the most recent Prevailing Wage Rates document, published on the city’s website in March 2022, there are different levels of pay for apprentices versus “journey-workers,” and the various roles at both of those levels will earn different compensation. For instance, a laborer will make a different wage than a carpenter, boilermaker, or roofer. The referenced document offers pay details for these specific workers; an “asbestos worker” dealing with “removal and abatement only” makes $44 per hour, plus overtime on Saturdays (if the worker completed 40 hours of labor that week). A “carpenter” makes $41.74 per hour, with the pay increasing if the worker is near hazardous waste or required to work on water.
By comparison, this level of complete transparency stands in direct contrast to the non-union sector. According to one construction site inspector, “The union guys … they’re certified and trained and they usually keep all the certifications and files verifying this stuff on the job site.” But on non-union sites, he says, “you have no idea who on the crew has been trained in what, or if they have licenses to practice their trade or if those licenses are up to date. There are no records to check. I’ve never seen any.”
According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, union construction workers earned, on average, $7 an hour (or 40 percent) more than their non-union counterparts, with wages of $23.95 an hour versus $16.84 an hour for non-union workers.
“On non-union sites you have no idea who on the crew has been trained in what, or if they have licenses to practice their trade or if those licenses are up to date. There are no records to check. I’ve never seen any..”
– Anonymous New York City Building Inspector
The Economic Policy Institute tracks several issues that help define the state and health of labor in the United States. Like the pay standards on the NY Department of Labor site, all this information is completely free and accessible.
Some Non-Union Contractors Pay Beneath Minimum Wage
On the non-union side, unscrupulous contractors can even get away with paying their employees as little as $10 to $12 an hour—for jobs that have prevailing wages of $45 or more per hour. A former union carpenter and construction industry expert who opted to remain anonymous for this article stated that the pay for non-union workers in construction largely depends on the job. “On prevailing wage jobs, the pay can be close to union scale—without the benefits or the pension, of course,” he said. “But on non-Davis-Bacon work, it can be anywhere from $15 to $30 an hour.” (Davis-Bacon work is federally funded or assisted contract work over $2,000.)
“The pay disparity between union and non-union construction workers is evident,” said Council member De La Rosa. “Not only are union workers paid more, and receive benefits, they are more likely to receive paid time off if they get sick or need to take care of a child or family member.”
On the topic of construction workers’ wages, the question persists—do low wages equal low quality? Will a non-union construction site erect a building that is of worse quality than a union-built one?
Our unnamed source said that the non-union side tends to have bigger crews because contractors pay less for labor, and thus jobs get done more quickly. But those crews tend to have only a small core of very skilled workers, with the majority of the workers semi-skilled or unskilled. So, one can conclude that just because a job is done quickly or cheaply does not mean it is a job done well.
2 Blue Slip is a luxury condo built on the Brooklyn waterfront by non-union contractors. Pictured here during mid-construction in 2019, the apartments have been rife with shoddy work and materials and buyers' complaints have been aired on national media outlets.
Based on recent litigation, many developers who hire non-union contractors seek their own profit over the quality of the building and the safety of workers. Many of the city’s residential buildings that are made by non-union workers, take Two Blue Slip in Brooklyn as an example, feature cheap resources used for interior elements like cabinetry or bathroom fixtures, rather than solid materials that will last. Plus, if the actual construction of a job is rushed, things will surely be built poorly or overlooked; at Two Blue Slip, leaks poured in from the ceiling.
Defeating “Low-Pay” Syndrome
Local officials will continue to push for unionization. “Good-paying union jobs are key to supporting families and providing low-income workers a pathway to the middle class,” said Council member Sandra Ung, adding that it is crucial for elected officials to work together to provide outreach to workers—especially from immigrant communities. “New York is a union city and this City Council will fight for union jobs that provide living wages and a dignified workplace. But we can also take other steps to help unions thrive, such as protecting workers’ right to form a union in the first place and the right to strike.”
New York City Council Member Pierira Sanchez of District 14 is chair of City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings.
Council member De La Rosa said several things can be done at the local level to overhaul the city’s construction industry, including ensuring adequate staffing and resources for the office of Labor Policy and Standards within the Department of Consumer and Workplace Protection, which investigates City labor violations. “The city should also form strategic enforcement partnerships with labor advocates to develop a monitoring system throughout the construction industry,” she said. “Lastly, the city must guarantee anonymity for whistleblowers and commit to investigating exploitative employers who retaliate against their employees for speaking out about unfair conditions.”
"Non-Union Workers Need to Organize"
Our anonymous source said it will take more to change the city’s construction scene. “The non-union workers need to organize and strike in order to turn the industry,” he said. “If you really want fundamental change, it’s going to have to come from the workers. They’re the ones who have the power to make change by trying to compel employers to come to terms with them.” Council member Pierina Sanchez, the chair of City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, shared this sentiment. “I believe those closest to the problems are closest to the solution,” she said. “Construction workers are best equipped to choose their demands and craft and propose solutions to the issues impacting their workplace.”
But ultimately, when it comes to New York City’s construction industry, unions do maintain the highest quality standards in safety, training, and materials, among other aspects. While non-union jobs have proliferated, those open shops are clearly rife with endless concerns over safety, pay, and quality.
Mass unionization would not only lead to better circumstances for many workers, it would help to change the downward trend on pay that has caused so many other problems. “Our construction workers literally build our city from the ground up and are essential in our city’s development,” said Council member Sanchez. “To afford construction workers the safety they need to build our city, they must have the most rigorous training standards and the strongest labor protections, which unionized workers receive.”
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at email@example.com.
The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 1, How We Got Here
The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 2, Why More Don't Cross Over
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