Will the new safety bill paralyze construction?

Officials are still negotiating details in the legislation

TRD New York /
Aug.August 24, 2017 07:00 AM

Gary LaBarbera and John Banks

After months of mudslinging between union and nonunion groups, a contentious construction safety bill that was expected to be voted on this week is temporarily on hold.

Details of the bill, which calls for the creation of a construction safety task force and 59 hours of training for workers, are still being negotiated, despite various reports that the City Council would vote on the legislation on Thursday. The delay comes after nonunion groups, along with the Real Estate Board of New York, civil rights and affordable housing groups launched a campaign against the bill, arguing that it would disproportionately hurt small, minority-led businesses.

Politico first reported that the bill would not appear before the City Council as expected. Council member Jumaane Williams told The Real Deal on Monday that several details of the bill — such as how many extra hours of safety training will be required — were still being hashed out.

“I would’ve loved to vote on it before the end of the summer,” he said. “We’re caught between wanting to do it expeditiously and wanting to do it correctly.”

He also noted that the bill was never officially put on the City Council’s calendar, so a vote on Thursday had never really been a sure thing.

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, didn’t seem worried that the bill won’t be voted on this week, though he believes a “meaningful and comprehensive construction safety bill” should be passed soon to “stem the tide of this tragic epidemic” — i.e., the uptick in construction site accidents and fatalities in the city.

“The reality is, the message that’s really coming out from REBNY is that they are concerned about costs,” he told The Real Deal. “It’s about profits over people.”

Critics of the bill argue that the new 59-hour safety training requirement is arbitrary and could harm workers who can’t afford it. REBNY, the New York chapter of the NAACP and some nonunion construction groups formed a coalition, Putting New Yorkers to Work, to oppose the legislation. An ad for the group features a montage of workers who say, “Don’t take my job away.”

“Improving safety at construction sites throughout New York City is critical, but shouldn’t be done in a way that will result in the unemployment of tens of thousands of city residents,” REBNY President John Banks told TRD in a statement.

Some are concerned that the extra training hours could force workers to take time off and could, therefore, slow down construction throughout the city.

“These are practical matters that have not been discussed,” said Kenneth Thomas, president of the New York Construction Alliance, a group that promotes open-shop construction. “There’s a distinct concern if this will shut down the industry until everyone gets their ducks in a row.”

Williams said that he and the council “are not oblivious” to concerns that such a requirement could impact the pace of construction in the city. LaBarbera called the argument nonsense, saying that training would likely take place after-hours.

In its current form, the bill charges a new site safety training task force — a 14-member group headed by the Department of Buildings — with figuring out many of the legislation’s ambiguities. The task force is expected to create incentives for property owners or general contractors to pay for all or most of the training required under the bill. One possible incentive would be that companies that foot the entire safety training bill won’t have to pay an extra fee that the DOB could slap onto property owners to help fund the new program. The task force will also create requirements for creating “language access plans” to train workers who speak different languages.

The group will determine whether or not previous training will count toward the 59-hour requirement. This would hypothetically include the 10- and 30-hour courses provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). To include these previous hours would likely favor union companies since they already have that training under their belts.

So much of the debate surrounding the construction safety legislation has been tied to the ongoing conflict between union and nonunion groups in the city. The latter have argued that the city’s legislation favors union construction companies. An earlier version of the bill required that each worker on a site of a building four stories or more undergo a state-run apprenticeship program. Unions have argued that nonunion or open-shop construction sites are inherently less safe, due to lack of training. Matthew Gross of Lettire Construction, an open-shop company, said that the legislation seems rushed and requires more input from both union and nonunion companies, as well as other stakeholders.

“It’s a crucial issue, but why are we starting at 59 hours?” he said. “It just doesn’t seem like there’s been a fully vetted discussion with everyone.”

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