death on the job

The Price of a Laborer’s Life: A $63,647 Fine

Luis Sánchez Almonte Photo: Facebook

On Sept. 12, as the remnants of Hurricane Florence pounded Brooklyn, a portion of a brick retaining wall roughly 30 feet high and about 20 feet wide collapsed onto a construction worker toiling in a trench in Sunset Park.

It took rescue crews more than 28 hours to recover the body of Luis Sánchez Almonte, a 47-year-old Dominican immigrant who lived in Inwood.

The massive effort to extract Sánchez Almonte from a tomb of mud, bricks and debris captured the attention of reporters and public officials – including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who tweeted: “I’m proud of how our community has united in the wake of this tragedy. Safety is our shared mission.”

But the public focus on Sánchez Almonte’s plight quickly washed away.

Now the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a subcontractor — a company associated with a felon who relinquished his Department of Buildings registration after pleading guilty to attempted bribery of a city official.

OSHA investigators found that a cave-in warning was ignored shortly before Sánchez Almonte died buried in rubble. On March 22, OSHA issued two citations against WSC Group LLC — one for a “willful” violation of federal construction safety regulations, the most serious category.

Investigators determined a “competent person was informed of a potential cave in hazard, and did not take action to protect employees.”

OSHA also found “employees were working in an excavation with an inadequate protective system” not compliant with federal safety regulations.

A violation is deemed “willful” when a contractor has prior knowledge that a potential hazard exists and proceeds anyway. A “competent person” – an employee with knowledge of OSHA rules, the ability to identify hazards and the authority to correct them – is required to inspect the jobsite before workers enter.

This wasn’t the first time that OSHA flagged safety violations at the 39th Street worksite. On June 21, 2018, an inspector cited WSC Group LLC for leaving a live electrical panel exposed, prompting $3,696 in proposed penalties.

OSHA’s proposed penalties against WSC Group stemming from the September collapse put a stark price on the life of a hard-working brother and uncle: $63,647.

A Past Attempted-Bribery Rap

Authorities sent notice to Jiaxi “Jimmy” Liu, whom documents identify as the project manager responsible for demolition and excavation on the warehouse expansion construction.

Liu also was one of 50 people charged in February 2015 following a Department of Investigation and Manhattan District Attorney bribery investigation that swept up 11 Department of Buildings employees and another five from the city’s housing agency.

Prosecutors alleged that Liu had teamed up with two DOB inspectors to concoct a phony stop-work order for a Coney Island project – then sought and received payment from the building’s owners to get the order lifted.

At the time, Liu was registered with the Department of Buildings under the corporate name WS Construction Inc.

That November, Liu pleaded guilty to third-degree attempted bribery, a felony, and was sentenced to 38 days of community service and a $5,000 fine, prosecutors said.

Following the wall collapse that killed Sánchez Almonte, Department of Buildings inspectors swept 23 sites that shared the same general contractor, Ground to Sky Builder Corp, registered to Jorge Espejo in Yonkers. Seven of those sites are now under DOB stop-work orders barring construction, including the 39th St. lot where Sánchez Almonte died.

WS Construction Inc, another of Liu’s companies, and Ground to Sky are also fighting a lawsuit in Brooklyn state Supreme Court, filed in 2017 by a Cobble Hill homeowner who claims faulty excavation caused over $1 million in damage to his property next door. Other defendants, the owners of the property under construction, allege that Ground to Sky and WS Construction are responsible for any damage not caused by the plaintiff. WS Construction denies the allegations.

In 2014, OSHA cited WS Contracting for three electrical safety violations at that site and proposed $4,800 in penalties.

Liu did not respond to requests for comment. Jorge Espejo, the general contractor who filed permit applications for Ground to Sky at the Cobble Hill and Sunset Park construction sites, directed THE CITY to Liu.

Now, months after Sánchez Almonte’s death, worker advocates are calling for a criminal investigation.

“When a death happens in a neighborhood where we organize, we feel it personally,” said Ligia Guallpa, co-executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a Brooklyn-based organizing group working with immigrant laborers. “The Brooklyn district attorney needs to take construction deaths seriously.”

A spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office told THE CITY that the fatality is under active investigation.

‘He was just working’

Sánchez Almonte’s death in the foundation of a planned warehouse expansion at 714 39th St., nestled between Greenwood Cemetery and Sunset Park, underscored the dangers construction workers continue to face.

Twelve died in construction accidents in 2018, according to the city Department of Buildings, a number that has held steady for each of the last three years.

In 2016, Sánchez Almonte moved to Inwood from the Dominican Republic, where he had worked as a welder. His nephew Andy Monsanto, who has lived in New York for about 20 years, helped him get settled and find work.

“I mean, imagine, my uncle had no one here other than my mom and myself,” Monsanto, a cab driver, told THE CITY in Spanish. “He had no papers, he only had me to fall back on.”

Sánchez Almonte’s family has hired a law firm, which declined THE CITY’s request for comment.

Monsanto said that in the immediate aftermath of Sánchez Almonte’s death, Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca, whose district includes Sunset Park, and Ydanis Rodríguez, who represents the district Sánchez Almonte’s lived in, reached out to the family to offer support. He added that Remy Salas, from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, also contacted the family.

The nephew said the family was led to believe elected officials would help with funeral expenses. Sánchez Almonte’s body lay in a morgue for almost two weeks as the family waited for a response, Monsanto said. “After all that, my uncle was, you know, broken in half and in pieces because that whole thing, the building, fell on his belly,” he added.

“They all turned their backs on us. They made me believe one thing and it turned out to be another,” he said. “They forgot about the case, and they never helped us.”

The family ended up paying $5,000 for a funeral in Washington Heights, according to Monsanto. He said that Rodríguez, Menchaca and the Mayor’s Office were invited to the funeral, but none attended. Sánchez Almonte’s remains ultimately were laid to rest in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s embarrassing, expecting help from the government and not receiving it,” Monsanto said. “Especially since, you know, nobody had it out for him. He was just working.”

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office Community Affairs Unit, said the unit helped finance the Dominican Republic burial and referred the family to counseling services. He added that the office had received an incorrect date from Monsanto for funeral services.

A spokesperson for Menchaca confirmed to THE CITY that the Council member did not attend Sánchez Almonte’s funeral, while a spokesperson for Rodríguez said the lawmaker and his staff did not receive an invitation from Monsanto.

Menchaca said in a statement: “While I have no doubt that the City extended every possible assistance to Luis Sánchez-Almonte’s family, we have to do more as a City to protect the rights and safety of our immigrant laborers.

Meanwhile, months after the tragedy, a mix of sadness and frustration mounts for Sánchez Almonte’s family.

“We don’t know anything,” Monsanto said. “No one’s called us, everything is as it was on the day it happened, when we were at the site waiting for answers.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.