Interviews & Profiles

How New York’s building trades are adapting to COVID-19

Organized labor secured a prevailing wage expansion, but with a 2022 start date.

Gary LaBarbera, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York President, to the left of Governor Cuomo in 2016.

Gary LaBarbera, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York President, to the left of Governor Cuomo in 2016. Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

In recent years, the unionized construction workforce has been pushing for an expansion of New York’s prevailing wage to cover any project that receives public subsidies. This year, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support, construction unions got the legislation across the finish line – but with a later implementation date than originally planned, due to the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The industry has also been grappling with the health and safety risks of coronavirus, with all non-essential projects put on hold. In a Q&A with City & State, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York President Gary LaBarbera discussed the details of the prevailing wage law, how the industry is implementing new safety protections, and how workers are responding. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

The state passed a law expanding the prevailing wage law as part of the state budget. This was something you had supported for some time. What’s in the law that you like, and what, if anything, did you not like?

The prevailing wage has been before the Legislature and the governor for a number of years. This year it was in the governor’s executive budget, obviously prior to any of the coronavirus issues. That clearly raised concerns and made it a bit more complicated. All in all, I think that the building trades as a whole is very pleased that we have finally got this legislation in place. The effective date of this is January 2022. It was originally going to be in July of 2021. That was because of the current situation and the economic uncertainty. So I think that was a very responsible approach by the Legislature and by the governor. Look, what the bill does is it establishes a prevailing wage threshold for certain private work that receive subsidies. The view that the building trades is that subsidies are intended to incentivize construction, and those projects should be paying good wages with benefits. One of the things that’s really significant is given the uncertainty of the economy, we are going to need to have projects that go forward that do provide good wages and benefit. The legislation also allows for private agreements between developers and the building trades, so that’s important as well. And I think many parts of the state, that will be pursued. So all in all, I think it was a responsible approach to an issue that has been lingering in the Legislature and before the governor for many years. There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of, as projects move forward, to enter into private agreements with owners. I think it will lead to more productive outcomes and more productive relationships. 

Last month, the governor has suspended all non-essential construction work. How is that playing out? 

The New York City building trades does and has supported the governor’s decision to deem certain construction essential and certain construction projects that are not essential. The overall construction industry is in the same place. We all deem it appropriate and we’re supportive of it. There was new guidance issued just last week – it’s transportation, utitilities, hospitals, certain projects that have affordable housing components to them. Those all to us make perfect sense. The issue isn’t what’s essential or not essential, that’s water under the bridge. The decision has been made and everyone is supporting and biding by it. The real issue is where construction work is going on, the priority there has to be the safety and health of the workers that are working on those projects that are a priority is paramount. To that end, the New York State Building Trades, along with the Real Estate Board of New York and the Contractors Association, we have protocols that we put in place on these projects, and some of them are pretty significant. For example, on many of the projects, we’re doing them early, at 4 o’clock in the morning. There are projects where common areas are being fogged, which is a form of sanitizing the site. That’s very important. We’re pursuing having running water, hand-wash stations, that’s very uncommon, that’s something new and something very positive for job sites. PPE is critical, masks, gloves, etc. And where it’s possible, to have social distancing. I say where it’s possible because with certain aspects of social distancing, it’s very difficult, obviously, it’s the nature of construction. But where it is possible, to engage in responsible social distancing practices. That’s really what the key is here is now, that where workers are working on essential projects, that all these precautions are taken. Many if not most of the projects, and more will be moving to it, we’re engaging in temporal scanning. Anyone that’s coming onto the site, temperatures will be taken to ensure that nobody has a fever or somebody getting symptoms. We have a notification policy, that if an individual does get sick and tests positive, while we respect all of the privacy issues, we will notify workers that were in the same proximity, often sites will be shut down for a period of time to be deeply sanitized and cleaned. The issue now becomes beyond essential and non-essential, the issue now is making sure all the sites that are working are engaging in the highest protocols and mitigation procedures and policies to prevent the spread of infections. We’re getting better at it, candidly, and the sites are improving. And we’re closely monitoring that. The other point that comes up a lot is how the construction workers feel about going to these sites. I will tell you that it’s a two-sided coin. Obviously there are workers who have not reported to work, and in many cases some of these workers may have underlying conditions, or family members may have underlying conditions. So throughout the industry, no one is being forced to go to work on any projects. Nobody is going to be forced to go if they have issues or fears or concerns about that. To date, I haven’t had any reports of staffing problems on the essential work, so that’s a positive sign as well. It’s really about building confidence within the workforce, so that when workers are going to work, members are going to work, that they feel confident that they’re going to be in a safe and healthy environment. So that’s really what’s happening in the industry right now. Obviously at some point, like with every other industry, we’d like to be able to remobilize and we are talking as an industry, between the Real Estate Board and New York City Building Trades Council and the contractors associations on what that will look like. Clearly, the timing of that is uncertain and that will be a much broader conversation. But we are actively discussing best practices in terms of remobilization when the time comes. We’re taking this situation day by day, like everyone else is, but we are certainly trying to make sure that the first priority right now in the industry is safety and health for our workers on these sites.