Construction forges ahead in the city despite virus threat

Construction workers continue to erect a structure at the World Trade Center during the coronavirus outbreak, March 16, 2020. (Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

By Rosa Goldensohn

This story was originally published on March 17, 2020 by THE CITY.

The de Blasio administration has encouraged New Yorkers to stay home as much as possible to help slow the spread of coronavirus, closing restaurants and bars and promoting remote work for those who can telecommute.

But private construction sites buzzed across the city Tuesday — even as Boston halted projects and Vice President Mike Pence asked the industry to donate its respirator face masks to hospitals in short supply.

City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have urged a moratorium on “nonessential” construction work in the city, but the call has yet to gain traction.

“These immigrant workers are not being considered the way that they need to be considered,” Menchaca told THE CITY.

Menchaca said he heard Monday from a woman who is undergoing chemotherapy and is concerned her construction worker husband will pick up COVID-19 at his work site.

“Every day my husband goes to the job, we worry whether he will be bringing the virus back home,” she wrote in an email to the Council member. “I will mostly likely not survive if I contract it.”

Groups representing workers say there is fear not only of the virus, but also a total loss of income. One challenge: Many nonunion laborers in the city are undocumented immigrants who do not have access to unemployment benefits.

Protecting Workers’ Health and Jobs

Any construction shutdown should be accompanied by a broader city government plan to protect the health and livelihood of workers, said Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the nonprofit Worker’s Justice Project, based in Brooklyn.

“The biggest concerns that I already got from workers: ‘How long is the shutdown going to be, and how is this going to impact my ability to pay rent, pay bills, buy food for my kids?’” she said. “Access to basic needs for survival in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.”

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents various union workers in the field, has not called for a shutdown. But the group released safety protocols Tuesday that included adding handwashing stations, limiting the sharing of tools and reducing the number of workers in confined areas.

Union contracts also typically allow construction workers sick leave, a spokesman for the Trades Council noted. Day laborers, meanwhile, fear forfeiting a job entirely if they take any time off.

Paid Sick Leave Fight

Occupational health experts deem paid sick leave essential for protecting people from coronavirus.

Employers “must provide paid sick leave for any impacted worker that gets sick or needs to take care of a family member impacted by COVID-19, and encourage workers to report symptoms, and there must be no discrimination against workers who are sick,” said Deborah Berkowitz, the worker health and safety program director with the National Employment Law Project.

Among other defenses, workers need respiratory protection on the job, she said, noting the mask shortage.

The city Department of Buildings says it has spread the word about safety precautions.

Asked about any plans for work to be suspended, DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky noted that his department had advised contractors to follow city Department of Health spread-prevention guidance.

Contractors also have been told “how to secure their sites if they are shut down for prolonged periods due to cleaning or because of a pause in work,” he added.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.