Andrew Cuomo to New York Construction Workers: Your Money or Your Life

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order requiring all nonessential workers to stay home. But construction workers are still being forced to build luxury condos — more evidence that for capital, high-priced real estate is more important than workers’ lives.

Construction workers are seen working in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 20, 2020 in New York City. Dia Dipasupil / Getty

“I’m genuinely concerned a lot of us could die. Most are older and already have a variety of job-related health issues.”

So Avery*, a New York City construction worker, told me yesterday. He passed along photos, shared to a Facebook group for city construction workers, taken Tuesday morning at a commercial skyscraper in Manhattan. In the pictures, workers are seen crowded together as they wait for freight elevators — no protective measures to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 are visible.

Workers at 1 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York.

Which is odd, because New York is on PAUSE as of Sunday night (the cutesy acronym stands for “Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone”). This means all “nonessential” workers are required to stay home (along with myriad other measures) to halt the spread of coronavirus, which at last count has afflicted nearly 31,000 New York City residents — more than 7 percent of the 431,000 confirmed cases worldwide.

The state guidance, issued as an executive order, says that essential construction work consists of “skilled trades such as electricians, plumbers” as well as “other related construction firms and professionals for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes.”

The second category makes sense — workers building hospitals, say, or repairing schools, are clearly essential — but the first effectively designates as essential all of the city’s approximately 150,000 construction workers. Workers in New York City’s deadliest profession are being asked to further risk their health for the sake of luxury condos and commercial office buildings.

As the death cult of Donald Trump and Wall Street contemplate whether to encourage people to return to work prematurely to shore up company profits, and Governor Cuomo “still figures out” how to strike the right balance between protecting lives and economy viability, workers’ well-being is being treated as less important than New York City’s real estate sector.

“It’s a Fucking Disaster”

“It’s scary,” says Peter, who worked on a site — 770 Broadway, Facebook’s offices — where a worker recently tested positive for coronavirus. While some general contractors have shut down worksites, the city has no policy in place to close worksites with coronavirus cases. (Sympathetic subcontractors may want to shut down sites, but doing so exposes them to being sued by general contractors.) Several workers I spoke to allege that they’ve had coworkers with coronavirus at still-operational job sites.

“We’re jammed in the freight elevator like sardines,” says Peter when asked about working conditions at 770 Broadway. “The governor can’t stop the spread, there’s no social distancing. It should be shut down.”

New York City councilmember Carlos Menchaca criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office for not shuttering sites where workers have tested positive. Menchaca also took issue with the Real Estate Board of New York after its president told the City that “basic economic activity” needs to be maintained amid the coronavirus crisis. Capital accumulation in the metropolis goes on, workers’ lives be damned — not to mention the dangers construction workers are posing to, say, the medical professionals with whom they’re sharing public transit. For capital, continued economic activity is far more “essential” than public health measures.

Wes, who builds new public schools for a company that operates across all five boroughs, says “it’s like nothing has changed” at his worksites. This despite the city’s union contractors and the Building and Construction Trades Council “issuing a two-page guideline for union sites that includes handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, and limiting the numbers of workers in confined areas.”

“No one tells you, ‘OK, here’s a hand-washing station, over there is some hand sanitizer.’ There’s nothing like that,” says Wes. “It’s a fucking disaster.”

While workers can stay home if they choose, doing so means forfeiting wages and even access to unemployment. Plus, losing work can mean losing health care. Construction workers say they’re scared of being blackballed should they choose to skip work. “A lot of guys are afraid of that,” says Peter.

“What choice do I really have?” asks Wes. “I have some paid time off. But if I take those days now, what happens if this gets worse? And I have a two-year-old; I’m going to need days to take off.”

Construction workers are facing a stick-up: “your money or your life” is no choice at all. They need stability and safety, now. Those laboring on truly essential construction and repairs must have a safe work environment; they must not face any retaliation for refusing to work in unsafe conditions. Every one of them — union, nonunion, or independent contractor — needs free health care, 100 percent of their income, and retirement security in this moment of crisis so they can opt to take time off rather than continue to toil under duress and fear. If the United Kingdom can guarantee workers up to 80 percent of their wages, there’s no reason the United States can’t take similar steps. While the eviction moratorium is a good start, as the first of the month approaches, suspending rent payments will be vital in a city as expensive as New York.

“I fear that it’s going to be a repeat of 2008–9,” says Wes. “We’re going to give all this money to save these industries and not make it contingent on giving it to the workers.” While he hopes Congress will pass a bill with some pro-worker strings attached, he’s not holding his breath. “Pelosi, Schumer? I don’t know how much they have workers’ backs,” he says.

We need construction workers healthy and ready for the essential tasks of building critical infrastructure. Condos and office buildings can wait; if they don’t, we don’t know how many people will be left to fill them after this crisis.