This story was originally published on 3/27/20 by THE CITY. (By: Rosa Goldensohn)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo will freeze most construction statewide in response to the pandemic virus sweeping New York, after outcry from workers and word of COVID-19 cases on job sites around the city.
On Friday the governor will decree most residential and commercial building temporarily off limits, according to a spokesperson for Cuomo’s office. Infrastructure and transportation projects will be allowed to continue, as well as emergency repairs, hospital building and work on affordable housing.
Until now, construction work has been classified as essential, exempt from a state “pause” that ordered the shutdown of a wide swath of workplaces.
Cuomo’s shift followed a rush of protest from construction workers and their family members. Significant numbers had begun refusing to show up for work, sources said. Word traveled on Facebook among workers about positive cases on job sites and an electrician’s death.
Stephen Jozef, 57, who had been working on Google’s offices at 111 8th Ave., died from the coronavirus Monday, his daughter said. The electrician was last on the site on March 6, leaving because he grew ill.
The carpenters’ union local released a statement Thursday asking elected officials to limit jobs to “truly essential” construction. “Our members’ lives are at stake,” it said.
Cuomo’s move came as some construction sites around the city temporarily closed for cleaning after workers tested positive for COVID-19 — including prized Cuomo public works projects at Moynihan Station and LaGuardia Airport. Both projects will continue under the new guidance.
Some in the industry feared that their coworkers have not yet fully appreciated the threat of the virus as work was allowed to continue.
“They’re being led to believe it’s no big deal,” one steamfitter said.
‘Lives Matter More’
The Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group of unions, and developer group the Real Estate Board of New York had defended continuing the work, saying it was vital for the economy and members’ livelihoods.
Neither could immediately be reached for comment on the governor’s planned change, which will come in the form of guidance from Empire State Development.
Elected officials who’d pressed for a shutdown called it imperative.
“There will be real economic hardship for workers, big losses for developers, and a further blow to the economy,” said City Council member Brad Lander, who submitted to Mayor Bill de Blasio a proposal similar to Cuomo’s directive. “But lives matter more.”
After first reporting on the issue last week, THE CITY heard from dozens of workers who detailed their fears of catching the virus in crowded elevators and busy shanties, and while commuting. Many asked versions of the same question: “What deems office spaces for multinational corporations and law firms essential work?” as one union carpenter put it.
— Samantha Rivera (@Samanth71134971) March 26, 2020
Still, construction workers remained on the job. Memories of the industry’s contributions to recovery after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy fed a willingness to continue during a crisis, some said.
“I think it really illustrates the pride our members have. It also illustrates how every last one of you is molded out of steel,” one worker wrote in a Facebook post. “I can’t stress enough how different it is to put yourselves and your families at risk to build a luxury condo, or a hotel, or a dorm.”
Owners Phone In
Some contractors also wanted to pull their workers off jobs, industry sources said, but feared missing deadlines and being on the hook for the cost of delays with general contractors, or GCs, who would be on the hook with real estate developers, who in turn had construction loans accumulating interest.
They saw hypocrisy, though, in the push from above to keep people on site — while execs dialed in from safe quarters.
“The clients all want job meetings,” one subcontractor said. “The GC says, ‘Let’s have a meeting on site,’ and the owner’s consultant and the owners want to do it remotely.”
Now, workers’ worry will train on the problem of surviving without paychecks. The crisis is compounded for those who lack the immigration status to access unemployment benefits.
But many family members are relieved. One woman whose husband works on a residential project in Manhattan asked her doctor if she should stop the weekly chemotherapy treatments she gets for cancer because she was so worried about exposure.
After work each day, her husband would take off his clothes in the garage before coming in to the house. Without Cuomo’s order, he could not stop working and collect the unemployment they need to get by.
“I’m trying to keep up with sanitizing everything, and it’s killing me, honestly,” she said. “It’s exhausting me, and I know it’s the last thing that I need right now, is what the doctor told me.”
Just imagining the possibility that the work would end brought her to tears.
“I would feel so much better,” she said. “I’m deathly afraid that I’m gonna get this virus.”