June 2, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
Editor’s Note: The following is part of an ongoing LaborPress series examining the ways in which efforts to weaken New York’s Scaffold Law jeopardize workers.
New York, NY – Opponents of New York's Scaffold Law – the legislation that helps injured workers hold property owners and contractors liable for the accidents that happen on their worksites – like to claim that Labor Law 240 is inflating insurance costs, killing business and making it impossible for women- and minority-owned firms to compete in New York State. It's an odd bunch of claims, according to Scaffold Law's supporters who contend that it's actually minority workers who are being disproportionately killed and injured on the job.
"Time and again, we hear about how the Scaffold Law is somehow killing businesses here," Assemblyman Francisco Moya [D-39th District] recently told LaborPress. "Well, [scaffolding accidents] are [absolutely] killing workers here in the great State of New York."
Indeed. This past April, a construction worker on top of a scaffold erected at West 55th Street near Broadway, plunged almost 100 feet to his death. And then just two weeks later, a second construction worker using a scaffold at West 33rd Street, fell to his death as well. Both work sites had numerous Department of Buildings violations issued against them.
Assemblyman Moya blames big insurance companies and the construction industry's "powers-that-be" for attempting to pit minority- and women-owned businesses against the minority workers most at risk for injury and death.
"When you look at the statistics where 40 percent of the construction industry are Latinos and immigrant workers, and then you see the statistics of fatal falls in the State of New York, which is over 74 percent, what does that say to us?" the assemblyman says.
Jack Kittle, political director for District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, spent 20 years painting bridges and knows all about the inherent dangers that come from working at great heights. As a result, he is critical of minority advocates who now back gutting New York's Scaffold Law.
"If you were a cynic, you would be trying to figure out why the NAACP and others are taking the position they take," Kittle says. "I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but it's absolutely counter to the mission that they have. This should be an issue that they are on the other side of, because that's the population that's getting injured on job sites."
Attorney John Merlino, of the law firm of Dinkes & Schwitzer, says that part of the beauty of Labor Law 240 is that it ties injures sustained on the job to Workers' Compensation – and is, therefore, applicable to a wide variety of workers.
"Even if you have a day laborer, under 240, that's a protected injured worker," Merlino says. "That's important. Especially if we're subjecting them to minimum wage, and treating them poorly on dangerous worksites because they're non-union. That's another class of people that is protected."
In contrast to large construction firms bemoaning their costs, Assemblyman Moya says that workers are actually the ones who are are truly vulnerable, and need protection from both state and local government.
"This is the one law in New York State that saves lives," the assemblyman says.
As previously reported here, New York's Scaffold Law maintains needed safety rules – while also acting as a lifeline for for workers who suffer a wide range of catastrophic accidents.
"I don't know where the lines cross between economics and human safety," Kittle adds. "Maybe there are some who don't care about who gets killed. I would love for one of these people to come with me to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge and talk about the issue there. If you've never worked 700 feet in the air, then you have no idea what it's like. It's simple to sit in an office and talk about gravity related accidents. But when you're on the top of a bridge, it's a very different discussion that you're going to have."