June 23, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Albany, N.Y.—The New York state legislature failed to enact three bills that would have seriously affected labor in the session that ended June 19. An elevator-safety measure pushed by the International Union of Elevator Constructors passed the Assembly, but died in committee in the Senate.
An insurance bill that would have enabled app-based taxi companies like Uber and Lyft to operate upstate, bitterly opposed by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, passed only the Senate. The legislature also failed to renew the 421a tax break for housing construction, with the real-estate industry and the building-trades unions still far apart on prevailing-wage standards.
The Assembly passed the Elevator Safety Act by a 134-8 vote June 14, the fifth consecutive year it has approved such a bill. The legislation would require elevator mechanics and contractors to be licensed by the state. Mechanics would need to have either four years of experience, complete a recognized apprenticeship program, or be licensed in a state that had similar standards, and would have to take continuing-education classes to renew their license. Contractors would have to employ licensed mechanics and prove they’d met insurance requirements.
“We’re very disappointed that the Senate didn’t see that the loss of human life in this past year outweighed all other concerns,” said Elevator Constructors legislative director Michael Halpin. It’s been “the deadliest year in New York City elevator history,” he added, with eight people dying in elevator accidents since May 2015. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration was the main opponent, he said.
“We strongly support efforts to provide enhanced training and education for industry professionals, but do not support a state-administered license that will create significant enforcement challenges and make elevator workers and passengers less safe than they are now,” mayoral spokesperson Austin Finan told LaborPress.
“Education and training make elevators less safe?” Halpin responded. With 34 states and the District of Columbia requiring elevator mechanics to be licensed, he added, “the untrained are coming to New York,” because the city contains 10% of the nation’s elevators and they don’t need a license to work.
The 421a program, which gave new housing construction in New York City property-tax exemptions for up to 35 years, had expired in January, when the Real Estate Board of New York and the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council couldn’t agree on wage standards—the result of a deal brokered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the end of the 2015 session. The program, begun in the 1970s to counter housing abandonment, had been opposed by affordable-housing advocates who said it produced very little affordable housing for billions in state subsidies.
A REBNY-supported bill anonymously introduced in the Senate a few days before the session ended would have revived the program under the name 421aa, with somewhat stricter affordability requirements. Developers receiving the exemption would have to make 25% to 30% of the apartments built available at rents ranging from about $635 a month for a single person to $2,950 for a family of four, generally closer to the higher end.
It set minimum wages at levels the unions considered insultingly low. Workers on buildings in Manhattan south of 96th Street that contained more than 300 units would have to be paid at least $55 an hour, including benefits. Workers in all other buildings receiving the tax break would get a $15 minimum, plus $1.50 an hour for health insurance. The minimum would go up by $1.50 a year, to $21 in 2020.
Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, called that “offensive.” “Thank you for the minimum wage,” he told The Real Deal real-estate newsmagazine. “Are they that out of touch with reality?”
The bill went nowhere, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie calling it a “non-starter.” “While we’re disappointed an agreement to extend 421-a wasn’t reached, we remain committed to working with all stakeholders to develop a responsible affordable housing program and ensure good wages with benefits for all New York families,” LaBarbera said in a statement to LaborPress.
The taxi legislation would have enabled “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft to operate upstate by authorizing insurance companies to issue them group policies. Unlike taxis and for-hire vehicles such as black cabs and car services, they would have lower coverage when they don’t have a fare.
The Senate bill, passed 44-17 on June 17, would have required drivers to carry $1 million in liability insurance for accidents that happen while they have a passenger or after they have accepted a fare, but lower levels when they are driving with the app on and don’t have a fare: $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident, and $25,000 for property damage.
A similar bill in the Assembly was approved by the Insurance Committee June 1, but went no further. It would have required significantly higher coverage: $1.5 million for while drivers have a fare, and $100,000 per person and $300,000 per incident when they have the app on. Uber and Lyft both opposed than version, saying those amounts were too high.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance denounced both bills as “classic Ubernomics.” “The driver, other motorists, and pedestrians only get full coverage if the accident happens after a fare is accepted. The coverage goes down if the driver is in an accident while cruising, and there is no coverage at all if the app is off,” it said in an announcement recruiting drivers for a June 1 protest in Albany. “The driver and public face the risks, while Uber rakes in superprofits. This law would be the beginning of Uber, Lyft, and other apps getting a statewide law to dispatch to private motorists.”