Dear New York Legislators:
It isn’t often that presidential contests play much role in New York politics, given our placement in the calendar of primaries. While this year may be an exception, for the most part the yelling is all done by the time our primary comes around.
But thanks to Donald Trump, this year those politics do play a role, albeit in a most unexpected way.
As you likely know, Trump hired undocumented (illegal) immigrants to help build Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. The “Polish Brigade” was in charge of demolition to clear the way for Trump Tower.
And if you read the stories about it, you will see something of profound importance to legislators — that worker safety gives way when money is at stake. For instance, regarding the demolition of the building that had previously been at the site:
Mr. Kozak and other Polish immigrants who were hired for the demolition said in interviews that they often worked in choking clouds of asbestos dust without protective equipment.
This story pops up in the news due to Trump’s hypocrisy when crying about immigrants, but let’s leave those politics aside today. It isn’t just that he saved money for himself by hiring them, and took advantage of their desperate need to work, it’s about the ease with which laws can be broken and lives placed at risk.
While almost all the news stories are tinged with presidential politics — with perhaps a healthy dose of Trump-style snark — let’s try to focus on the underlying facts. This summary comes from the Daily Beast, including the judge’s determination that Trump was paying workers (when they were paid at all) “off the books”:
The 200 demolition workers—nicknamed the Polish Brigade because of their home country—worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week with no overtime to knock down the old Bonwit Teller building and make room for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
According to testimony in a protracted civil suit in federal court, the laborers were paid $5 an hour or less when they were paid at all. Some went unpaid after the contractor had financial troubles. A few never received even the paltry sum that was owed them for their dirty and hazardous efforts preceding the construction of Trump’s monument to his own wealth.
“They were undocumented and worked ‘off the books,’” Manhattan federal Judge Charles Stewart said of the workers after they became the subject of a 1983 lawsuit. “No records were kept, no Social Security or other taxes were withheld.”
Make no mistake, when it comes to worker safety, it’s all about builders trying to save money. And the safety problems can pop up anywhere — if it can pop up on a high profile Fifth Avenue construction project then every place has the potential for such conduct.
As you ponder changes to the Labor Law, a subject that seems to come up each session as builders try to eviscerate it so they can have a bit more, ahem, latitude on safety issues, ponder this: When an accident happens at a construction site, who has control of the evidence and witnesses? Can injured workers rely on their co-workers to give accurate testimony about conditions on the site, with their own jobs at stake if the testimony isn’t what the builder wants?
Do people immigrate to this country to make money to feed their families back home, or to give support to Juan and Manuel that they just met last week?
Usually the faux-reform — reform is a word that should be used for improvements, not destruction — comes up with the scaffold law. When employers don’t provide proper safety equipment and a worker is injured at a height-related incident, the employer is held liable unless the worker was solely responsible. Builders, of course, would love to have a comparative negligence standard, so that they can point the fingers back at the workers and say, “Hey wait! Maybe a jury will find the workers partly at fault!”
But, of course, workers are handicapped by lacking control and access to the work site after injuries. And it’s the builders who are in the best positions to make sure the safety equipment is available.
So, dear Legislators, while many of you have no doubt cracked your fair share of Trump jokes, let’s put that aside today and look at what he’s given us– an inside look at the construction site to see what actually happens, as opposed to what should happen.
Respectfully yours, Eric Turkewitz