Wealthy Business Interests Continue To Cry Poor In An Effort To Weaken New York’s Worker Safety Laws

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Yet again, it’s Profits Over People. According to a report in Tuesday’s “Crain’s New York Business”, a panel was held Tuesday morning before the Greater New York Construction User Council at the Scandanavia House on Park Avenue in Manhattan to discuss efforts to effectively dismantle New York Labor Law 240(1), a law that has protected New York’s construction workers for over a century. Indeed, for well over 100 years, New York State has maintained certain laws that protect construction workers from dangerous work site conditions that lead to gravity-related injuries. The most significant statute is New York Labor Law Section 240(1), which typically functions to protect workers who are exposed to the risk of falling, or having an object fall down onto them. When a worker falls because of a defective ladder or scaffold, or as a result of not being provided proper personal fall protection, for example, the statute generally applies to protect the injured worker and hold the entities with the actual power to control the work site (namely, the owner and general contractor) responsible for such safety failures.

Labor Law 240(1) and its predecessor statute were in full effect during all of the major New York City construction booms from the early 20th Century to the present, when the modern skyline of our great City was built. Contractors and developers have literally made fortunes in the construction business here for more than a century. Nonetheless, in recent years, powerful business interests compromised of contractors and real estate developers have been lobbying heavily in Albany to completely gut Labor Law 240(1) of its power to ensure that work sites are as safe as possible. Their justification, in large part, is their claim that Labor Law 240(1) has driven up the cost of doing business to such a degree that liability insurance policies are prohibitively expensive or even impossible to procure. The first problem with their argument is that it lacks any proof. Indeed, no insurance company in New York to date has been willing to open its books and demonstrate how Labor Law 240(1) impacts its profitability or the premiums it charges at all. The most logical explanation for this is the high likelihood that the law is having no serious impact on these insurance companies’ bottom line, their profits continue to soar, and they are more than happy to continue insuring New York developers and contractors. Before taking an ax to a time-tested, more than century old worker protection law, the business leaders holding that ax should at the very least be challenged to prove the financial “sky is falling” arguments they continue to advance.

Construction worker groups and Unions have strongly opposed these business efforts to weaken worker safety laws like Labor Law 240(1). Paul Fernandes, Chief of Staff at the New York Building Trades Council, was quoted as saying, “To the extent they (contractors and developers) are losing these cases, it’s because they absolutely didn’t do their job and failed to protect workers”. Labor representatives have also pointed out that the construction industry has been making these same arguments involving claimed financial distress for years, and did so even during boom years when the construction industry was at full employment. Mr. Fernandes described this anti-worker safety campaign as “tort reform Olympics”, explaining that every four years the same business interests advance the same argument to weaken safety laws.

It is ironic and telling that an organizer of Tuesday’s panel was Christopher Jaskiewicz, the COO of Gotham Organization. Gotham is a perfect example of a company that cannot honestly cry poverty or claim that it has had difficulty operating in the New York real estate development and construction business under the Labor Law. In fact, Gotham is a fourth-generation New York City real estate development and construction company that has existed since 1931. Bloomberg news reported in November 2011 that Gotham has supervised the construction of more than 40 Million square feet through its history. According to Forbes Magazine (link below), Gotham is one of the largest privately held construction contractors in the United States. The company’s own website details its development history from the 1960s to the present, and it was involved in a number of significant projects in each and every one of those decades. In fact, the company’s business appears to have really taken off from the year 2000 to present. The company boats that it currently operates over 1.7 million square feet of residential and retail properties, and is now developing almost an entire city block between West 44th and 45th Streets and 10th and 11th Avenues, a high-end project known as “Gotham West” that includes 1,240 rental units housed in 4 buildings, a 200 space below-grade parking garage and approximately 17,000 square feet of retail. The development includes a 31-story tower with 700 units, and two 14-story buildings atop a platform over Amtrak train tracks. Gotham is acting as the developer, builder and construction manager for this massive project, which a Bloomberg article (link below) valued at $520 Million Dollars. The President of Gotham, David L. Picket, was quoted as bragging that the project, “will create hundreds of new jobs, generate millions of dollars in revenue for the construction industry, contribute towards the building of a new primary school, and provide homes to thousands of New Yorkers”. According to The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the project was expected to create more than 2,900 construction-related jobs over 3 years. Wells Fargo, a financial services company with approximately $1.3 Trillion in assets, eagerly provided the lead financing for the project.

Gotham is a company held privately by a family that has made a fortune on the backs of hard working construction workers. Since 1931, Gotham has built in New York, and it apparently does so today at a faster rate than ever before. During Gotham’s entire prolific history of construction Labor Law 240(1) has existed. Common sense dictates that we should all be skeptical when companies like Gotham claim to be struggling during a targeted political campaign to weaken worker safety laws, but at the same time boast about their soaring business to the rest of the world. When giving a quote outside of its lobbying efforts, Gotham’s President bragged about a current project that is creating millions of dollars for the construction industry, thousands of jobs and stimulating the local economy. Then, when trying to influence lawmakers in Albany, a representative of the same company attends a panel espousing the idea that the construction industry is in great peril. Gotham has survived and thrived in the construction business for more than 81 years, and ALL while Labor Law Section 240(1) was on the books and protecting its workers. We would think and hope that Gotham is thankful to the workers of New York who have built Gotham’s many glimmering towers with their sweat and blood; but fighting to weaken Labor Law 240(1) under the false pretense of financial distress is a terrible way to say thanks.


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