Interviews & Profiles

Fighting for the wage protections of NY’s construction workers

City & State caught up with Kevin Elkins, political action director at the New York City District Council of Carpenters, about the union’s successful resistance to a tax incentive for real estate developers.

Political action director at the New York City District Council of Carpenters Kevin Elkins.

Political action director at the New York City District Council of Carpenters Kevin Elkins. New York City District Council of Carpenters

Wage protection was among the issues that drove the 20,000-member New York City District Council of Carpenters to join others in successfully lobbying against Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed extension of a tax incentive for developers to build affordable housing. The existing incentive is known as 421-a, and is set to expire in June. Hochul’s alternative proposal was called 485-w. The tax incentive is meant to spur construction of affordable housing, but has been criticized for falling far short of addressing the city’s housing crisis.

The union took the stand that 485-w was too similar to 421-a and echoed calls for further discussion on a replacement before the law’s expiration.

City & State caught up with Kevin Elkins, political action director for NYCDCC, on Tax Day to discuss the union’s opposition to 485-w, as well as the ongoing problem of wage theft, which targets the most vulnerable workers, especially those from communities of color and who are undocumented.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back on the state budget process, your union opposed the inclusion of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed extension of the 421-a tax incentive, known as 485-w. Why did the union take a stand? 

We opposed the 485-w proposal because we felt that with $1.8 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies going towards development that it was critical that the program works so that no tenant – or worker – is left behind. Unfortunately, 421-a failed in both those missions, and 485-w was basically a carbon copy that wouldn't serve to advance any efforts to make housing more affordable and provide more protections for workers. These include sustainable wages that can support a family, pension and retirement benefits, health care and worker safety requirements. 

Please be more specific about what the union saw as inadequate about 485-w.

First and foremost, 485-w kept in place the geographic boundaries that provided protections to workers. They're not great protections, but at least it was something in only the wealthiest parts of the city. If you’re building anything in the Bronx, in most of the places in Queens and Brooklyn, all of Staten Island, and anywhere above 96th Street in Manhattan, and you're a worker, you get no protection. We also did an analysis of 485-w to see whether the program would work and found it only lowered the unit threshold where these protections were kicking in to 200. Based on our analysis, that would have resulted in a 1% increase in the number of projects, out of hundreds and hundreds of projects, if 485-w had existed instead of 421-a. You can’t tell me that's a program that works for a tenant. It's not a program that works for workers. So, we stood up to get this out of the budget to make sure that we give it the time and the discussion it deserves.

What changes does the union hope to see? 

We would like to see one standard for the city, when it comes to worker protections. You shouldn't be paid better or have more protections just because you're working in the wealthiest or whitest parts of the city. If you're working anywhere in the city, you should have the same protections. And we think that the unit threshold needs to be lowered more significantly, so that workers aren't screwed just because they're working on a building that's 199 units instead of one that's 200 units.

Tax Day this year was used by advocates and public officials, including state Attorney General Letitia James, to highlight the ongoing problem of wage theft. Please discuss how prevalent wage theft is, particularly for the construction industry, and what’s being done about it on a policy level.  

It's not just bad for the construction industry, it's also bad for the taxpayer, because that's money that's being stolen from the government that can go towards funding everything from health care to more school seats. It's a huge issue across the entire country and when you have such widespread theft, it lowers wages for everybody, robs the taxpayer of money, and allows people primarily from Black and Brown communities to be discriminated against in a way that's just simply unacceptable in 2022. There's legislation passed by state Sen. (Jessica) Ramos which increased the penalties for those who commit construction wage theft, which we're excited about, and there's definitely pending legislation circulating that would actually criminalize it as well, which we of course support. We have come a long way, but more needs to be done.

Please discuss in more detail how wage theft impacts the most vulnerable workers.

This is often about the people who do not have the protection of a union, which has mechanisms in place to protect workers. Again, it's primarily people from Black and Brown communities, and especially those who are undocumented, who are taken advantage of. They get paid well below the minimum wage. They aren’t given the means to advocate for themselves or even understand that they're being discriminated against. And they’re retaliated against in cases where they do speak up, which is why it's been so critical to have policy leaders join us out there passing legislation to give people the tools they need to fight back and get the wages that they deserve, the wages that they're owed. It's a worker issue, which is why we’re so invested in it.