REBNY calls for larger fines. Wait, what?

Industry group and union back $500K penalty for construction deaths

From left: Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, Sen. James Sanders Jr. and REBNY's James Whelan (Getty, iStock, REBNY)
From left: Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, Sen. James Sanders Jr. and REBNY's James Whelan (Getty, iStock, REBNY)

Seven years ago, 22-year-old Carlos Moncayo was killed when the walls of an excavation pit collapsed on him at a construction site in the Meatpacking District.

The general contractor, Harco Construction, was convicted of manslaughter in what was considered a landmark construction safety case. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration only fined the company $10,000 — the maximum under state law.

Lawmakers proposed Carlos’ Law in 2017, raising the maximum fine for companies found criminally liable for a worker’s death to $500,000 for a felony and $300,000 for a misdemeanor, but the measure failed to garner support in Albany.

Now the bill has been changed to make those amounts the minimum fines, yet the measure has picked up support from the Real Estate Board of New York, boosting its odds of passing in the final days of the legislative session. Usually, the trade group opposes penalties with the potential to raise costs for its members.

But in this case, REBNY won another change that made the measure, which is backed by the laborers’ union, the Mason Tenders’ District Council, more palatable for the business group.

REBNY approached the union last year with concerns that the bill would create new felony and misdemeanor charges for “supervisors,” which the industry group feared could be applied to developers. The language has now been amended to REBNY’s satisfaction.

With the industry and union on the same side, the bill has a path to approval.

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“We are proud to partner on sensible and effective legislation that makes clear that companies who shirk their obligation to protect their workers will face serious consequences,” the groups said in a joint statement.

This is not the first time the union and trade group have worked together. Two years ago, they negotiated wage agreements to grow the laborers’ share of affordable housing work.

Mike Hellstrom, business manager at the Mason Tenders’ District Council, believes higher fines will make developers and contractors more wary of hiring unsafe contractors, which in the view of organized labor are typically nonunion contractors. A $10,000 fine could be viewed as the cost of doing business in the city, but penalties north of $500,000 may give companies pause, Hellstrom indicated.

“They may start second-guessing the hiring of a rogue contractor,” he said, adding, “It takes a lot of actions to change behaviors.”

For REBNY, the amended bill appears to represent a compromise that prevents a worst-case scenario of the original bill passing over the objections of the real estate group, not to mention the bad optics of opposing a construction safety bill.

Moreover, it is exceedingly rare for a construction accident to result in criminal charges on REBNY members’ projects, so the potential downside is minimal.

The latest version of Carlos’ Law is sponsored by Sen. James Sanders and Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn. Lawmakers have six scheduled session days left before they adjourn for the year.