work

Cuomo Calls Off ‘Non-Essential’ Construction Statewide

Construction waste recycling worker Sean Ragiel takes a break in Times Square after working at a job site, March 24, 2020.
Construction waste recycling worker Sean Ragiel takes a break in Times Square after working at a job site, March 24, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Need to know more about coronavirus in New York? Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will freeze most construction statewide in response to the pandemic virus sweeping New York, after outcry from workers and word of COVID-19 cases on job sites around the city.

On Friday the governor will decree most residential and commercial building temporarily off limits, according to a spokesperson for Cuomo’s office. Infrastructure and transportation projects will be allowed to continue, as well as emergency repairs, hospital building and work on affordable housing.

Until now, construction work has been classified as essential, exempt from a state “pause” that ordered the shutdown of a wide swath of workplaces.

Cuomo’s shift followed a rush of protest from construction workers and their family members. Significant numbers had begun refusing to show up for work, sources said. Word traveled on Facebook among workers about positive cases on job sites and an electrician’s death.

Stephen Jozef, 57, who had been working on Google’s offices at 111 8th Ave., died from the coronavirus Monday, his daughter said. The electrician was last on the site on March 6, leaving because he grew ill.

“We understand the need for essential electrical work but there are many jobs that aren’t,” his three daughters, Valerie, Amanda and Rachel Jozef, said in a statement.

Construction worker Stephen Jozef died on March 23 from the coronavirus.
Construction worker Stephen Jozef died on March 23 from the coronavirus. Photo: Courtesy of the Jozef Family

The carpenters’ union local released a statement Thursday asking elected officials to limit jobs to “truly essential” construction. “Our members’ lives are at stake,” it said.

Cuomo’s move came as some construction sites around the city temporarily closed for cleaning after workers tested positive for COVID-19 — including prized Cuomo public works projects at Moynihan Station and LaGuardia Airport. Both projects will continue under the new guidance.

Some in the industry feared that their coworkers have not yet fully appreciated the threat of the virus as work was allowed to continue.

“They’re being led to believe it’s no big deal,” one steamfitter said.

‘Lives Matter More’

The Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group of unions, and developer group the Real Estate Board of New York had defended continuing the work, saying it was vital for the economy and members’ livelihoods.

Both now say they accept the shift, which arrived in the form of guidance from Empire State Development.

The affordable housing exemption in that guidance allows construction to proceed on any residential building that is at least 20% affordable, a spokesperson for ESD says — meaning that much apartment-building construction in New York City will be permitted to continue.

“We will devote our full attention to maintaining and building essential infrastructure projects critical to first-responders and healthcare professionals,” said Building Trades president Gary LaBarbera. “It will be our priority to ensure that these construction sites operate with heightened safety protocols in place in order to protect the members of the Building Trades working on these projects.”

Real Estate Board of New York president James Whelan said REBNY member developers would “comply with the requirements brought on by this unprecedented crisis.”

“We agree that the health and safety of New Yorkers remains the top priority,” said Whelan in a statement.

“We will continue to work closely with our members, state and city officials, our partners in labor and others to comply with the requirements brought on by this unprecedented crisis. These are challenging times and REBNY will continue to support all efforts to address the city’s needs for public health and future economic growth.”

Elected officials who’d pressed for a shutdown called it imperative.

“There will be real economic hardship for workers, big losses for developers, and a further blow to the economy,” said City Council member Brad Lander, who submitted to Mayor Bill de Blasio a proposal similar to Cuomo’s directive. “But lives matter more.”

After first reporting on the issue last week, THE CITY heard from dozens of workers who detailed their fears of catching the virus in crowded elevators and busy shanties, and while commuting. Many asked versions of the same question: “What deems office spaces for multinational corporations and law firms essential work?” as one union carpenter put it.

Still, construction workers remained on the job. Memories of the industry’s contributions to recovery after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy fed a willingness to continue during a crisis, some said.

“I think it really illustrates the pride our members have. It also illustrates how every last one of you is molded out of steel,” one worker wrote in a Facebook post. “I can’t stress enough how different it is to put yourselves and your families at risk to build a luxury condo, or a hotel, or a dorm.”

Owners Phone In

Some contractors also wanted to pull their workers off jobs, industry sources said, but feared missing deadlines and being on the hook for the cost of delays with general contractors, or GCs, who would be on the hook with real estate developers, who in turn had construction loans accumulating interest.

They saw hypocrisy, though, in the push from above to keep people on site — while execs dialed in from safe quarters.

“The clients all want job meetings,” one subcontractor said. “The GC says, ‘Let’s have a meeting on site,’ and the owner’s consultant and the owners want to do it remotely.”

A construction worker operates a lift at a site in Chelsea during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, March 22, 2020.
A construction worker operates a lift at a site in Chelsea during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, March 22, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Now, workers’ worry will train on the problem of surviving without paychecks. The crisis is compounded for those who are excluded from unemployment benefits based on their immigration status. The city is also home to more than 15,000 day laborers, many of whom work construction, according The Worker Institute at Cornell University.

But many family members are relieved. One woman whose husband works on a residential project in Manhattan asked her doctor if she should stop the weekly chemotherapy treatments she gets for cancer because she was so worried about exposure.

After work each day, her husband would take off his clothes in the garage before coming in to the house. Without Cuomo’s order, he could not stop working and collect the unemployment they need to get by.

“I’m trying to keep up with sanitizing everything, and it’s killing me, honestly,” she said. “It’s exhausting me, and I know it’s the last thing that I need right now, is what the doctor told me.”

Just imagining the possibility that the work would end brought her to tears.

“I would feel so much better,” she said. “I’m deathly afraid that I’m gonna get this virus.”

Help THE CITY cover the coronavirus crisis: What are your questions, concerns and experiences? Tell us here.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.

SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!