On Monday, November 28, an unidentified construction worker fell 162 feet to his death while working at a non-union construction site in the Upper West Side. Fellow construction workers huddled below the scaffolding the following night to mourn his death. A makeshift vigil was left at the site consisting of flowers and candles to honor his memory.
Across the city, construction worker vigils are common. His death was the third in November.
On November 1, 27-year-old immigrant worker Raúl Tenelema Puli was killed at a Brooklyn construction site. The next day, another construction worker was killed while working on a construction site in Queens.
According to most recent data collected by the state, deaths at New York City construction sites appear to be on the rise with the majority of those deaths occurring on non-union sites. Immigrant workers are also disproportionately dying on construction sites. In response, policymakers are calling for the governor to sign a long-awaited bill that aims to reduce deaths and injuries.
Nearly 80 percent of private construction in New York is done by non-union workers. The decline in non-union construction labor began over the past decade as the city began to recover from the damage of the 2008 recession. For contractors looking to save money, open-shop work sites, which are jobs that employ mostly non-union workers but hire some union workers as well, are up to 30 percent cheaper than union sites. Part of the reason it’s cheaper is that contractors are not required to pay union wages or benefits, nor are they obligated to adhere to union rules. A 2021 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that union construction workers earned on average 40 percent more than their non-union workers.
In 2018, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) released a report that found that 86 percent of construction deaths in New York were on non-union work sites. The report found that sites were not as thoroughly inspected as union work sites.
Monday’s tragic incident was no different. The worker who died was employed by the Brooklyn-based scaffolding company Rennon Construction Corp. The company racked up over $10,000 in Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations in 2018. The Department of Buildings immediately issued a stop work order for the site and is currently investigating.
“Construction workers in our City deserve a safe working environment, and incidents like this week’s fatal fall are completely unacceptable,” Ryan J. Degan, OSHA Deputy Press Secretary said. “We are conducting a thorough investigation, along with our partners in law enforcement, into exactly how this could have happened, and to determine whether any corners were cut on the job which may have been contributing factors.”
A representative for Rennon Construction Corp declined to comment for this story.
Monday’s construction worker death has added yet another body to the growing industry death toll. Adding to the most recent data collected by New York State, there have been at least 24 construction worker deaths this year.
Most deaths occurred in New York City and were mostly caused by falls. Charlene Obernauer, Executive Director of NYCOSH, says that until data is released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2024, there is no way to know for sure how many workers have died this year. She said that because it’s the first time the state has collected the data she’s unsure how accurate it is and that the number could be much larger.
Thus far, Obernaueror has analyzed OSHA data and found that in 2021 there were 39 fatalities in New York construction sites, an increase from 29 deaths in 2020. Of all the deaths in 2021, 82 percent occurred in non-union sites. Injuries sustained by falls have also skyrocketed to record highs with 194 workers injured in 2021.
Obernaueror suspects that this year’s total death rate could be greater than last year’s and hopes that legislation like Carlos’ Law, which was passed by New York State Legislature in August but has yet to be signed by the governor, will reduce the dangers for workers.
“While we cannot conclusively say that the rate of construction worker fatalities is increasing until more data is released, the trend that we are seeing is certainly concerning,” she said. “We need common sense legislation to prevent more workers from dying — legislation like Carlos’ Law that would lead to real consequences for employers who willfully disregard health and safety laws.”
First introduced in 2018 and named after Carlos Moncayo, an immigrant construction worker who was killed due to a trench collapse in 2015, Carlos’ Law would place criminal penalties upon contractors of at least $300,000 for a misdemeanor and $500,000 for a felony conviction for a worker’s death or injury. The construction industry has long been opposed to the bill arguing that it would push the industry into a recession.
Avi Small, First Deputy Press Secretary for Governor Kathy Hochul, declined to discuss the Governor’s position on the bill by simply stating that she was currently “reviewing the legislation.”
State Senator Jessica Ramos, who was the lead sponsor of Carlos’ Law, believes that the law would incentivize contractors to prioritize workers’ safety lest they face criminal liability.
“When we finally passed Carlos’s Law in the Legislature last spring, I read the names of 74 workers who died on their job sites in NYC into the record,” she said. “It is terrible to learn that yet another worker isn’t returning home while this bill waits for the Governor’s signature. Governor Hochul can take immediate action to protect workers and save lives by picking up her pen and signing this law today.”