worker safety

Construction Workers Still on Job Amid Coronavirus Concerns

A World Trade Center construction site continues to operate during the coronavirus outbreak.
A World Trade Center construction site continues to operate during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Yoav Gonen /THE CITY

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While most New Yorkers are staying indoors, construction workers are expected to report for work this week — even as some laborers said they fear for their health.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order designated construction work — from infrastructure projects to repairs to new buildings — as “essential.”

Still, the wide-ranging construction exception has infuriated some in the industry who are alarmed that a laborer’s coronavirus diagnosis isn’t enough to shut down a jobsite.

“Some people thought we weren’t working Monday because we just assumed, when they read nonessential, that we were nonessential,” a worker on a luxury downtown condo high-rise told THE CITY.

To get to work, he takes a packed elevator up 50 floors. The only sink, for hand-washing, is on the ground, he said.

“Just riding the elevator to where you need to work is like an affront to the whole idea of social distancing,” said the worker, who requested anonymity out of concern of possible retaliation by his employers.

He’s holding out hope that the government freezes the industry, but might stop going in if that doesn’t happen. He fears forfeiting unemployment benefits if he walks out.

“Yeah, I’m worried about losing my income, but there’s sacrifices that have to be made to, you know, stop the spread,” said the worker, who commutes via subway. “Money is not worth the health, especially putting other people at risk.”

Facebook Site Affected

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office confirmed that the city is allowing work to go on at sites where employees have logged confirmed coronavirus cases.

“We’re not shutting locations with positive cases,” Julia Arredondo, a de Blasio spokesperson, wrote in an email. “We’ve provided guidance on how to keep people safe and sites should follow that guidance.”

Officials at various city agencies — including the Department of Buildings, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection — did not clarify whether they were tracking coronavirus cases on work sites.

Among those sites with a construction worker who tested positive for coronavirus was Facebook’s office at 770 Broadway in Manhattan. The worker was there last week on a job to build corporate offices and a cafeteria.

“In light of this news, the affected individual will remain out of work and away from the office construction site until cleared to return by their healthcare provider,”  Jamila Reeves, a Facebook spokeswoman, told THE CITY in a statement. “We’ve taken — and will continue to take — all necessary precautionary measures, following the advice of public health officials, as we prioritize everyone’s health and safety.”

As construction has been deemed an essential service by Cuomo, Facebook office construction projects in New York will proceed for the time being, she wrote.

‘Crucial to Our Future’

Some construction subcontractors across the city want to pull workers off sites now — but fear general contractors will sue them, industry sources said.

“I tried to shut down field operations last week out of respect for my people, because these are my team members,” said one subcontractor. “And I was told that, no, you cannot do that because you will not only be held liable to meet the schedules of your schedule, but you’ll incur consequential damages.”

Asked Sunday about whether he should order his Department of Buildings to stop work on projects like condos and offices, de Blasio said he was following the state’s lead.

“The guidance was to continue that work because it is outdoors, because clearly any part of the economy can still allow people to have a livelihood, that’s so important, as we see so many other people losing their livelihood, and because a lot of what is constructed obviously is crucial to our future,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But much city construction work takes place in existing, occupied buildings, with workers such as plumbers, electricians and mechanics inside, industry sources noted.

A retired labor leader said the state should make sure workers can get unemployment whether or not their job site is shut down.

“I hope everyone takes a step back and takes a look at our people and the danger that they’re in, and asks the governor to do something with the unemployment rules in these times so that our members can make an educated decision on their own,” said Terry Moore, the former business manager of Local 46 Metallic Lathers & Reinforcing Iron Workers in the city. “And so that it’s not held against them, when and if this eases.”

The governor’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Exemption Defended

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building Trades union, defended Cuomo’s construction exemption.

He said that workers who do not feel comfortable working will not be forced to do so and that immunocompromised employees have been told to stay home.

“In close consultation with the real estate industry and the city’s union contractors, we have implemented unprecedented and extraordinary safety protocols to protect workers on job sites across the city,” LaBarbera said in a statement. “With construction deemed an essential industry, we are committed to maintaining some level of economic activity for the betterment of our members and the city as a whole.”

Even when workers are told to stay home if they feel sick, adherence to that principle would require a cultural shift, some said.

“It’s really a heavy ethos of like, you come in no matter what, unless you’re like, absolutely dying,” said a carpenter who decided not to return to work last week after feeling at risk for the virus. “Like, I’ve been sick before and not wanted to lose a job. And I’ve like literally puked on the way to work and still come in.”

Louis Coletti, president of the contractor organization the Building Trades Employers’ Association, was optimistic about the prospect of workers staying healthy and construction continuing without a break throughout the statewide “pause.”

“We have introduced a lot of protocols on the sites,” he said. “Does that have an effect on productivity? Of course it does, but the workers’ health is more important.”

He said building owners are immediately informed when a worker tests positive.

The Real Estate Board of New York, which represents large building owners, said it was working closely with the unions on safety guidelines.

“We are in a public health crisis, but we also need to maintain some basic economic activity,” James Whelan, the board’s president, said in a statement. “It is critically important that construction sites operate safely.”

Construction is already the deadliest occupation in the city, with 22 deaths in 2018, according to a count kept by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.

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