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NYC Construction Unions Can Lead the Way Out of the Covid Nightmare

Safety and well-being, input from members, flexibility are what unions do best.

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Harnessed, masked and distanced, union metal workers get back to the job on June 8, 2020, at a construction site in Brooklyn, NY - Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

You probably remember the Spring of 2020 in New York City. Businesses were reeling, on the run from Covid-19. The disease had unleashed a rash of closures, stoppages and cutbacks that shut down the city. In the months since, the number of infections and deaths has climbed and too many businesses have closed.

But amid that initial chaos — while outdoor urgent care stations were being built in Central Park and a U.S. Naval hospital ship was in our harbor — one industry was able to develop Covid-work-safety protocols and return its workers safely to the job — well before others. That group is New York City’s construction unions, which on June 8 sent up to 400,000 men and women back to work.

The Department of Labor Statistics and OSHA have not yet compiled the data on Covid infection rates within New York City construction, but based on the industry’s robust return to productivity and a near-complete lack of anecdotal evidence of infections, it seems clear that union construction workers have experienced an infection rate much lower than that of the general public. It’s the kind of success that can and should be viewed as a standard to guide the rest of America’s job sectors as they plan to go back to the office.

Safety is in the Union DNA

Construction union success in dealing with a pandemic should come as no surprise. The safety of its members has always been their top priority which starts before someone can even join. Admission to a construction union requires completing a combination of extensive classroom training and apprenticeship programs – much of it focused on safety – which can take months to complete. The results of this dedication are quantifiable. New York City union construction workers are five times less likely to have a fatal construction accident than non-union construction workers.

Another advantage union members have in a pandemic is health insurance. Union construction workers are more likely to have premium health insurance which means they will seek care if they get sick.

Union workers also have the full support and encouragement of their unions to collect unemployment or paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Open communication up and down the chain of command is also a core value of construction unions. It’s how they’re able to compile and disseminate new information to a broad audience quickly. So as the knowledge of coronavirus-related issues and best practices has evolved, union officials have used video-conferencing, virtual project management meetings and other means to provide updated safety guidance to their members.

The Rules

From the start, organized labor in the construction industry has worked partners to implement scientifically proven health and safety measures on our work sites. Unions require all workers to wear hardhats and masks at all times and maintain six feet of distance between each other. Gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer and prohibit any tool sharing, while also managing the flow of workers in and out of sites by staggering shifts and requiring they arrive and leave separately.

Perhaps the most important rule is total buy-in from all parties. For example, union leadership must show commitment to provide the safest possible work environment for their members. The Building and Construction section of the AFL-CIO COVID-19 Pandemic Resources website says, “The labor movement is working nonstop to protect the health and safety of all workers. We have trained, educated and equipped our members with the tools they need to be safe on the job, but we are demanding additional urgent action to ensure employers implement comprehensive plans to protect front-line workers and reduce the risk of exposure to the general public.”

And likewise, the members must commit to adhere to the guidelines, help their colleagues do so, and communicate any important issues immediately up the chain.

The Future

Unions have always prioritized the creation of safer, cleaner and healthier work environments. Now as the coronavirus has introduced us all to terms like social distancing, and to practices like frequent hand-washing and wearing facial coverings, it’s natural to look to the group that has been thinking this way all along.

As one construction worker said after a couple months back on the work site, “being a union member has been enormously beneficial in the past few weeks.” He predicted that the “appeal of unions will be stronger than ever going forward.”





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In April a 68-bed hospital opened on a Central Park ball field to offer care for people affected by the coronavirus.  – ABC7 New York

On June 8, 2020, New York City Construction unions sent 400,000 men and women back to work. It's the kind of success that can and should be viewed as a guide for the rest of America's job sectors as they plan to go back to the office.

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On April 1, 2020, the U.S. Naval hospital ship Comfort was tugged into port to care for the sick..  – DNAinfo

The safety of its members is a union's top priority and it starts before someone can even join. The results are quantifiable. New York City union construction workers are five times less likely to have a fatal construction accident than non-union construction workers.

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