Eric Mendoza died in front of what a real estate agent called “gorgeous harbor and Manhattan views.”
On the morning of April 10, 2019, he was working on the rooftop of One Pierrepont Street, a luxury apartment building in Brooklyn Heights, replacing the bricks of a column that enclosed a rooftop water tower. He fell 13 stories to a concrete courtyard below.
It is not clear from publicly available information if Eric Mendoza slipped, lost his balance or was hit by a brick. It is clear that his death was preventable.
“There were no safety measures in place to safeguard workers,” the New York City Department of Buildings said in an investigation of the accident. There was no guardrail system that could have stopped Eric’s fall, as was required by law. He was 23 years old when he died.
Eric is one of the hundreds of young people who emigrate each year from impoverished communities around the world to work some of the most hazardous construction jobs. Their incomes are crucial for their families in their home countries and in New York.
Eric’s death also reveals what families of undocumented workers who die in construction sites face as they seek some measure of justice, either through financial compensation or criminal prosecution of the companies and individuals responsible for the fatality.
Four years before his death, Eric had arrived in New York from the farming village of Palmarito Tochapa in the Mexican state of Puebla. He reunited with his mother, Elizabeth, who had left their hometown when Eric was seven. In New York, she helped him get a job through an acquaintance who worked for Skyline Restoration, a construction contractor based in Long Island City.
At first, Elizabeth’s acquaintance refused to accept Eric as a worker — at 18, he was too young. She had to send him a photo of Eric. “He looks strong,” the man replied. “It seems he will resist.”
Eric was hired as a nonunion laborer initially earning up to $130 per day for shifts that could stretch for 13 hours, while unionized workers earned nearly $24 per hour. Elizabeth also said the company did not pay Eric overtime. Skyline has publicly disputed that it avoided paying overtime, but a complaint for “denial of overtime compensation” was filed by several workers against the company in the Southern District Court of New York last January.
Despite the job conditions, Eric made enough money to buy himself a car and contribute to the rent for the family’s apartment in Flushing, Queens. His income was crucial for keeping his two younger brothers in school —Ricardo, now 23, and Emanuel, 21. They arrived in New York as teenagers in 2018, seven months before Eric’s death. “The youngest one was in high school. None of them worked. They were going to school to learn English,” said Elizabeth.
On that April morning two years ago, Elizabeth got a call from the wife of the man who got Eric a job in Skyline, also an immigrant from Puebla. She told Elizabeth that Eric had fallen while working. Elizabeth knew at once that Eric was dead — he usually worked high up.
Elizabeth headed to the site, and reporters immediately swarmed her. A grief-stricken Elizabeth told the PIX11 News reporter in English: “My son is very nice, very responsible, very good … every day working, every day.”
It’s standard practice to seek an insurance payment after workplace injuries and deaths. And if there is negligence involved, there could be grounds for a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution. But for a few days after Eric’s death, Elizabeth couldn’t even think about consulting an attorney.
“I was in so much pain after my son’s death,” she explained.
When Elizabeth gathered the energy to file a civil complaint for compensation, she learned a woman alleging to be Eric’s wife already had an open claim in the Brooklyn Civil Court. Elizabeth strenuously denies that Eric had a family in Mexico. Eric’s estate is now legally in dispute. The attorney of the case did not respond to a request for comment.
Without Eric’s income or any compensation for his death, Elizabeth became unable to support the household by herself. She works at a cleaning company five days a week from 1 to 9 p.m. Emanuel, the youngest son, started a full-time shift in a grocery store. He tried to keep attending high school while toiling eight hours a day, but “he was not learning anything,” Elizabeth said. Ricardo got hired as a carpenter. Neither brother completed high school.
After Eric’s death, Skyline Restoration received a $25,000 fine from the Department of Buildings for failure to institute/maintain safety equipment measures. The company is still disputing the violations. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration imposed a $41,106 fine for five unspecified “serious” violations concerning Eric’s death, which the company is also contesting. This agency also slapped Skyline’s subcontractor at the One Pierrepont Street renovation project, Jaen Restoration, owned by Skyline executive Jason Geraghty, with a $23,000 penalty. Jaen Restoration could also face a fine from OSHA, which is still investigating the incident.
The companies also face civil lawsuits for compensation. Concurrently, the Brooklyn District Attorney opened a criminal investigation into Eric’s death, which is still ongoing, the office’s spokesperson told Documented. The case has been slowed down because of the pandemic.
Rachana Pathak, supervising attorney of the Construction Fraud Task Force at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said criminal investigations of undocumented construction workers’ deaths can be challenging to prosecute. Witnesses are often intimidated to step up and, since undocumented workers are generally paid in cash, employers can deny having hired them. “In some ways, it is the perfect crime setup,” Pathak said.
Potential witnesses to Eric’s death haven’t come forward in the years since. Eric would commute with another worker to Brooklyn every day, but after his accident, Elizabeth said she never saw the man again. “The guys who were working with him never went to the hospital or the funeral services,” she said. “The guy who was working with him [on the building’s rooftop] never showed up.”
“The cause of Mr. Mendoza’s fall has never been determined, as it was unwitnessed,” an attorney representing Skyline said in a written statement to Documented. “After months of internal investigation and cooperation with authorities, we are still trying to figure out how the incident occurred. There is no physical way that he could have accidentally fallen in the course of his work with an understanding of the area where Mr. Mendoza was supposed to be working that day.”
Skyline Restoration’ attorney claimed that Eric Mendoza was employed directly by Jaen Restoration — the subcontractor of one of his executives. Jaen Restoration did not respond to a request for comment.
More than two years after Eric’s death, the accident’s investigation is still ongoing. “I want justice, so this won’t happen again,” Elizabeth said.
This story was produced as part of the Isaac Rauch Immigration Policy Reporting Fellowship