Labor Press's Blue Collar Buzz (on AM 970 The Answer) recently sat down with New York scaffold injury lawyer Andrew Levine to discuss the state of New York State Scaffold Law, Scaffold Law Reform and Labor Law 240. (Read the full transcription below).
Bill: Hello, and welcome to Labor Press' Blue Collar Buzz right here on AM970 The Answer. I'm your host, Bill Holfeld. With me today, as usual, is my friend, colleague, and producer, Joe Maniscalco. Joe, how are we doing today?
Joe: Doing great, Bill. Great to be back in the studio with you.
Bill: It is. It is, indeed. As usual, you've done a splendid job in lining up interesting guests and-
Bill: Who's our first guess this evening?
Joe: First off we're going welcome Andrew Levine from the law firm of Raphaelson & Levine. Andrew is an expert on New York Scaffold Law. Now, despite the terrible safety record we're experiencing with construction workers dying at almost an unprecedented rate, protecting the Scaffold Law is something we have to be vigilant about, and we're going to talk about that now.
Bill: Absolutely. Andrew, welcome to the program, it's nice to have you here.
Andrew: Thanks for having me, guys.
Bill: I know we've been following this story for a while now because I know there's been a lot of pushback by REBNY and the developers against this. They claim that it just makes New York completely uncompetitive, yada, yada, yada. There's always that big explanation, "Oh, you can't do this to us. We're not going to make any money," while they all drive around in billion-dollar private jets, but that's another story for another program. Tell us about what's going on with Scaffold Law as it stands today.
Andrew: You hit on the head. That's exactly the pushback that we get. New York has enacted The Scaffold Law, Labor Law 240, which is a workplace safety law. It recognizes the extreme dangers that face construction workers in New York City that are working at great heights. Currently, on construction place accidents, 35% of deaths are related to falls from heights. This law seeks to address that and place the responsibility on the property owners and the general contractors to provide the workers with a safe place to work. Each year, we're faced with challenges with the Scaffold Law with exactly what you said, contractors going up to Albany complaining they can't make any money, the construction industry can't work, and that there's no jobs to be had. When we look at the actual statistics that's very far from true.
If we compare New York to the nation, New York has a 43% growth in employment in the construction field, whereas, the rest of the country has a 20% growth, and that's from 1995 through 2015, which gives us a really long sample period.
Bill: What about all the brouhaha that we always get from the developers that, "Oh, if I went to New Jersey or if I went to Connecticut, the insurance rates would be so much lower." Are they just pulling that out of the air or how is that getting rolled out that way?
Andrew: You know, it's funny that you mention that because Connecticut, let's take a carpenter, can insure themselves for less money in New York than in Connecticut. Connecticut has no Scaffold Law where New York has a Scaffold Law. We call it the hype train. The insurance companies hype up the contractors that they're premiums are going up because of these frivolous lawsuits or made up claims where people are getting catastrophically injured at construction sites that weren't given the basic fall protection, basic safety measures. Those contractors believe what the insurance company's telling them and go crying to Albany. The reality is that this law mandates safety. The very simplest way to lower your insurance rates and to prevent claims is to provide safety.
If you provide safety, this law becomes irrelevant and there are no claims and their insurance rates would be low. The reality is that there are skyrocketing accidents, skyrocketing debts. 2016 we saw 33 workplace-related deaths. In the first four months that the statistics are available for, we've already seen 15 workplace-related deaths, and that's in the first four months. So, we would see a nearly 50% increase in 2017.
Bill: Those numbers are insane, right Joe? I mean it's like turning back the clock. When the ironworkers, and I take them as an example, all the trades that work at great heights or in peril. When the ironworkers started out in 1896, the average lifespan for an ironworker was 10 years in the business. If you were there more than 10 years, and you went in when you were 16, usually. If you were 30 years old and an ironworker, your nickname was Pop.
Joe: Wow, that's shocking.
Bill: That was your lifespan, yeah.
Andrew: We owe those people more, I mean they're literally building New York throughout the city, throughout Upstate New York and Long Island, we owe them more and we owe them basic protection. We should never be in a situation where we value construction profits over construction safety.
Bill: Yeah, well, that's the problem, right, Joe? We're in an age of profits over people, right?
Joe: Yeah, but I think in this situation, the public awareness level has been raised by so many deaths in the last couple of years that you reference the fact that this repeal effort, it's a perineal problem. Worker advocates have to constantly fight this battle. This year they're like, "Oh, don't worry, we're not doing anything. We're not even trying to repeal." I think it's because on the one hand public awareness about the dangers of construction has been raised and also just the horrible track record. We see how many construction people are dying and who in their right mind is going to try to repeal safety?
Bill: Well, yeah, there's a lot of people in this country not in their right mind, but that's another story, but so where does this stand now in Albany, Andrew?
Andrew: Fortunately, the session is over, legislative session, and Labor Law 240 is still the law and it is still there to protect construction workers, and the law works. New York has more construction than any other state in the country and yet we are the fifth-safest state.
Bill: Ah, the law works. See, that's a beautiful statistic. Say that again. We have more construction ... State that again properly.
Andrew: New York has more construction than any state in the country, yet we are the fifth-safest state if you look at overall incidents and overall accidents so-
Bill: That's amazing.
Andrew: Apparently the law works.
Bill: I'm just curious, who is safe than New York? Where is it safer and what do they do differently?
Andrew: There are other states that have Scaffold Law and, really, the function of places that are safer is they're going to building less at great heights like they are in New York. If you take New York City, we're forced to be building in confined spaces at great heights, increasing the risk of injury and, God forbid, death.
Bill: Let's face it, nobody moves, nobody in the country, and no disrespect to any other construction worker out there anywhere else in the country, but nobody moves as fast as we move in New York.
Andrew: Absolutely, and also New York has a great skilled workforce. We have the labor force that is trained, has years and years of experience. When they're given proper safety and proper safety devices they are able to avoid accidents and go home to their families who they're working to provide for and give their kids a hug at night and, thank God, not be catastrophically injured.
Joe: Andrew, what do think about forward? Nobody wants to get complaints and it's very nice that we're in a position where we don't have to worry about the law being repealed now but since this has to do with money, you know that the big money, the forces, are not going to give up on this. Where do you see the new, you know, beachhead, the new assault popping up?
Andrew: That fight is never over. Each year we anticipate there to be a push that this law should be recalled and reviewed and basically stripped down where it won't provide any worker safety whatsoever. There's been attempts to carve out areas like New York City that would not be subject to the labor law, there's been attempts to put in height exclusions. Basically, there's been an ongoing assault against New York work force. This is a law that's important to keeping workers safe and it's the only, the only, opponents to the law are people that are placing profits over safety. When you boil down their opposition, there's really nothing.
They'll say that insurance costs too much. Well, New York State Trial Lawyers, which is an organization of attorneys that represent accident victims in workplaces, has proposed a law for a number of years that said to the insurance companies, "Open up your books." They call it-
Joe: The Sunshine Act.
Andrew: The Sunshine Act, exactly. They say, "Don't tell us that you're losing so much money and you're hemorrhaging losses," because they voluntarily continue to write business in this marketplace. "Show us."
Bill: Yeah, but that's always, "Oh, no, you have no right to look at that because ..." Yeah, but "You have the right to know everything I make and you have it because I'm ..." I don't know, because I work with my hands, "You have a right to know everything that I make and what my annual income is. You have the right to know what every union official's income is, but we don't have the right to know how much profit a developer's making."
Andrew: That's right, and we believe that the reason they won't open their books and show it is because it doesn't support the fire that they're starting. If anyone were to actually see it, what they would see is that the insurance companies are fleecing the contractors. It's not due to the workers, God forbid, getting injured in the claims they have to pay out, it's that they're, you know, they've started this hysteria about the labor law and if anyone were to actually to see their books and see the numbers, it would not bear it out. The other pushback is they say, "It's redundant." That, "We don't need the New York Labor Law because we have OSHA." I applaud OSHA, they do a wonderful job but they have an extremely limited staff.
There was a recent statistic from the AFL-CIO that said that "If OSHA, with their current staff of investigators in the New York area, were to visit every active construction site, just one time, not in response to an incident, just one time, it takes them 107 years." Certainly, the Labor Law is necessary. It works, and we need to place a paramount on keeping our workers safe.
Bill: Just a quick note about OSHA, what a lot of people don't realize, I know it's very, very popular to attack any organization that has anything to do with the federal government these days. OSHA, since it's inception in 1970 has cut the number of worker deaths in half. In half. That's a 50% cut in worker fatalities. To me, that's a successful government agency.
Andrew: Absolutely, and while we applaud OSHA, we should similarly applaud Labor Law 240 because that also has made people safe and it's mandated that contractors make sure their workers are safe. How it does it is it makes them financially responsible because if profits are what drives them, this is going to cut into their profits if they don't make sure that the minimum safeguards are available to their workers.
Bill: Okay, well, Andrew, in the little bit of time that we have left, God forbid, somebody does get hurt on the job and needs to reach out to you to get some decent representation, where can they reach you?
Andrew: Sure, so my firm is Raphaelson & Levine. We specialize in representing workers in construction place accidents. Our office is located in Midtown Manhattan. Our phone number is 212-268-3222. They can also reach us anytime at 1-800-LAWSWORK.
Bill: Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us today updating us on the Scaffold Law and keep up the good work, we appreciate all the good work you do.
Andrew: Thanks, we greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here with you guys.
Bill: We will be back in just a minute with more Good Talk right here on Labor Press's Blue Collar Buzz at our home, AM970 The Answer.