The Real Deal New York

Council member pushes prevailing wages bill as a construction safety issue

Would apply to projects receiving city money and are 50K sf or hold more than 50 housing units
By Kathryn Brenzel | January 26, 2017 05:10PM

An NYC Construction site and Elizabeth Crowley (Credit: Getty Images and Elizabeth Crowley)

Alongside a package of controversial construction safety bills, a City Council committee is scheduled to consider a measure that seeks to require prevailing wages on certain construction projects in the city.

The bill, first introduced by Queens Council member Elizabeth Crowley in April 2015, has been re-referred to the Committee on Housing and Buildings, and is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday that will largely focus on construction safety measures. The proposed bill would apply to projects that receive financial assistance from the city, are larger than 50,000 square feet or, if a residential project, more than 50 units, and that don’t have a project labor agreement.

While her revived bill — which has 20 listed sponsors — doesn’t explicitly involve construction safety, Crowley says the proposed legislation will at least indirectly encourage it.

“If you’re an employer, and you’re obliged to pay the prevailing wage, my guess is that you’d want to employ someone who is trained and qualified through a state program,” Crowley said. In New York City, that likely means hiring union labor. (Before joining the City Council, Crowley was a member of a painter’s union.)

A set of construction safety bills were introduced last week in response to the high level of construction-related deaths in the city over the past two years. One of the bills, in particular, poked the beehive that is the debate over union and nonunion labor in the city. The measure, introduced by Council member Ben Kallos, seeks to require contractors to hire workers who have gone through a state-backed apprenticeship program. The measure is opposed by nonunion construction groups, who argue that it’s a “market-grab” by the union. Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly opposed the requirement earlier this month, though he’s since walked back from those statements.

John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, commended the council’s efforts to improve construction safety in the city but that apprenticeship programs and prevailing wage requirements were not the way to do it.

“They will result in crippling Minority and Women Business Enterprises and eliminating jobs for certain skilled workers at construction sites throughout the city,” he said in a statement. “In addition, we don’t understand why legislation mandating prevailing wages would be considered at a hearing dedicated to the issue of construction safety.”

A representative for the Building and Construction Trades Council did not immediately return calls seeking comment. President Gary LaBarbera, however, has been a very vocal proponent of prevailing wages, especially during the debate over the future of the tax abatement 421a.

Jolie Milstein, president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, said that the apprenticeship and prevailing wage measures would prevent the city from reaching its 10-year housing plan to preserve and create 200,000 units of affordable housing.

“Mandating apprenticeships and prevailing wage on construction sites would significantly raise costs and immediately halt many affordable housing projects in New York City,” she said in a statement. “Any drop in housing construction will prevent thousands of low-income and homeless New Yorkers from gaining access to the safe, affordable homes they desperately need.”