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Just Who Is Building de Blasio’s Affordable Housing?

August 4, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco

Affordable housing is moving ahead - but who's building it?
Affordable housing is moving ahead – but who’s building it?

New York, NY – Imagine getting seriously hurt on the job – slipping and opening a deep gash in your hand, only to have your employer look the other way and never file a report. As terrible as that sounds, critics say it’s an all-too-common phenomena on non-union construction sites around the city today – and one that should be considered when the mayor proceeds with his affordable housing plan using municipal funds. 

“A lot of times, [shady contractors] won’t even report there has been an accident on the job, or they’ll try to drop off an injured worker at the hospital and then leave” says Steve McInnis, president, New York City District Council of Carpenters. “That still exists. That’s why I think affordable housing advocates should understand that this kind of thing goes on. It’s big in that industry – and that’s what they’re putting public dollars into. We have a progressive mayor and a progressive city council, and I think they have to take that into consideration when they’re doing housing policy.”

That said, a true commitment to build affordable housing at least partially union remains out of sight. And the de Blasio administration’s recent announcement that capital from the New York City Retirement Systems will be used to help build a $350 million fund in support of affordable housing throughout both the city and state, should only add fuel to the fire. 

In making his affordable housing announcement, Mayor de Blasio said the pension-aided financing means “more shovels in the ground.” 

“We have set out the most ambitious affordable housing plan of any city in the nation, and today we can say that’s a goal both the public and the private sector are putting their muscle behind,” the mayor added.

But shiny silver-plated prop shovels don’t impress those more concerned with how the workers hired to use the real shovels will be treated. 

In an earlier interview, Jack Kittle, political director, District No. 9 of the International Painters and Allied Trades, complained that many of the jobs building affordable housing under the de Blasio administration might end up going to contractors who flagrantly abuse their workers in a myriad of ways.

“It makes me really sad when I see them with the silver shovels talking about the good jobs they’re creating because I know what kind of jobs that are going to be there,” Kittle said. “I know that they are going to be off-the-book jobs. And I have a different definition of what good jobs are.” 

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has been especially aggressive in going after sketchy constractors and construction site safety  abuses – and in March backed a litany of reforms aimed at combatting Workers’ Compensation insurance fraud. 

“My Office’s Tax Fraud and Money Laundering Unit will continue to pursue those who cheat the system – but the best protection for New York’s workers is a system that is itself protected from fraud and abuse,” Vance said.

A 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office [GAO] report found that many workers may not report a work-related injury or illness because they fear job loss or other disciplinary action, or fear jeopardizing rewards based on having low injury and illness rates. While employers may decide not to record injuries or illnesses because they are afraid of increasing their workers’ compensation costs or jeopardizing their chances of winning contract bids for new work.”

NYCOSH – the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health advises all injured workers to see a doctor authorized by the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board within 30 days of an accident, and to be sure and indicate that their condition is job-related.

Some of the most focused and determined apprentices now taking part in the best union training programs in the city are refugees from the non-union sector fed up with the exploitation they suffered at the hands of crooked contractors. 

“If their employees get hurt at work, they pretend that they don’t know them,” says Bryan Brady, director of Ironworkers Local 40/361 Training Center in Astoria, Queens. “And that’s true. We’ve had people in our program who have worked non-union, and they’ve said that they’ve seen people with broken legs picked up, carried down the 5th Avenue, and left at the corner.”

That’s a far cry from high road contractors who, together with New York City’s Building Trades, invest billions of dollars each year training the safest and most effective workforce in the business. 

“Our employers spend a tremendous amount of money on Workers’ Comp, paying all of their insurance, paying all their Social Security, making sure all their taxes are paid," Brady says. "But we’re competing against people who, unfortunately, would never dream of paying their taxes, or their employees.”

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