Last year, 22 New York City construction workers were killed while on the job, according to newly released federal data from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration shared with Gothamist. And three deaths occurred just last month.
Construction companies convicted of criminal negligence that led to an employee’s severe injury or death could face penalties of up to $500,000, according to a new law going into effect this weekend.. But advocates doubt the higher fine under Carlos' Law will significantly reduce worker deaths, which have reached their highest count in at least five years.
Although Carlos’ Law — named after 22-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant Carlos Moncayo, who was buried alive in a 13-foot trench — seeks to curb deaths and injuries in the construction industry, it ultimately falls on prosecutors to go after suspected bad actors, according to Diana Florence, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Florence led the case against Moncayo’s non-union employer, Harco Construction, after his death in 2015.
“Carlos' Law will merely be symbolic unless construction and workplace safety is consistently enforced,” said Florence.
The law was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul just days before the end of last year. Although advocates were happy the law was finally signed, they complained that it’s watered down.
The bill passed by the Legislature set a $300,000 base fine for guilty companies, but the version ultimately signed by Hochul includes no minimum. But lawmakers say that raising the legal maximum fine from $10,000 — the amount Harco Construction was made to pay the state in 2016 for Moncayo’s death — to $500,000 is enough of a win.
“If I had my way, it'd be higher still, but what a battle just to get $500,000,” said state Sen. James Sanders, the bill’s sponsor.
With no minimum fine, it’s up to district attorneys' offices to pursue higher dollar amounts. But prosecutors are rarely able to pull together solid cases against contractors.
“Not only is it rare to get a conviction, it's still rare for the case to be investigated by prosecutors,” said Florence.
The brunt of construction industry safety issues in New York City often falls on two of the city’s most vulnerable groups — formerly incarcerated people and immigrants, who get into the industry because of its lower barriers to entry. As of 2021, immigrants made up 53% of construction jobs in New York City, according to the state comptroller’s office.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos said Carlos’ Law is critically needed as thousands of migrants have come to the city since last spring. Many of them have flooded into one of the few areas where they can work: non-union construction jobs, which leave them open to exploitation and hazardous working conditions. Non-union jobs lack the safety measures and protections of union construction jobs, according to workers and advocates, leading to higher rates of deaths and injuries.
“Sometimes in the rush to build, these contractors simply don't take worker safety into consideration. And behind every worker is a family that's expecting them to return home at night and certainly a community that depends on him coming back with a full paycheck,” Ramos said.
'A better future'
Sheneka Bonelli-Samuel’s husband was among the three construction workers who were killed on the job last month.
“My heart cannot go on, but I know it has to for our children,” said Bonelli-Samuel. She was on the phone with her husband Lindon Samuel, 57, just hours before he was crushed to death by an excavator bucket while working on an affordable housing project in Claremont for non-union Joy Construction.
Samuel got a job as a laborer for Joy Construction in April 2022 after being a stay-at-home dad for two years during the pandemic to care for his 3-year-old son, Shane.
“He was a great father,” she said. Samuel gave their 16-year-old son, Shaya, a pep talk every morning before he left for work.
“He said, ‘I work this job because I want a better future for you,’” Bonelli-Samuel recounted.
Samuel was injured in April 2022, just months before his death, when he was struck on the head and neck by a piece of lumber while working for Joy, according to his wife. Bonelli-Samuel said her husband's employer resisted filing an incident report despite his visit to the emergency room.
Joy Construction said Bonelli-Samuel’s claims were inconsistent with their reports on file that were taken at the time of the incident. The company declined to comment further.
Bonelli-Samuel said her husband worried about his safety because his co-workers weren’t adequately trained or prepped with safety protocol.
“What he complained about is they hired people who didn't have skills and didn't know how to use a hammer and a nail. So he was doing their job plus his,” she said.
Now, Bonelli-Samuel is working extra hours at her job as a senior clerk at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx to make rent and feed their kids. Her lawyer, Michael Kremins of Manhattan-based firm Raskin & Kremins, said they’re deciding on legal recourse.
The Bronx district attorney’s office told Gothamist it's also investigating Samuel's death, according to a spokesperson. Joy Construction declined requests for comment.
On the same day Samuel was killed, another worker employed by the same company was injured less than two miles away.
Joy already developed a troubling track record in the years leading up to the accidents. The company racked up 34 OSHA violations and $67,881 in fines at 12 different job sites — all but two in the Bronx — between 2000 and 2022 from OSHA. Seven incidents involved worker falls, one of which was fatal.
“What's going on with these Joy jobs with these deaths—it's out of control,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, assistant business manager for Laborers Local 79, a union that represents construction workers in New York City.
Non-union companies account for most construction worker injuries and deaths in the city, according to the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health. Federal data shows that at least 17 of the nearly two-dozen construction deaths last year occurred at non-union sites.
Union officials argue that non-union companies push workers to unsafe limits, increasing the likelihood of injuries and deaths on the job.
“You got somebody breathing on your back all the time telling you you gotta get it done,” said organizer Alvaro Gonzalez of Laborers Local 79.
“You're just a worker. You're just a number. You're just a dollar figure to them,” he said.
The two other unidentified workers who died in December also worked at non-union sites — one run by Alrose Construction in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and another run by GeoCorp Electric in Queens. The Borough Park death is currently being investigated by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, according to a spokesperson. Alrose Construction did not return phone calls requesting comment.
New arrivals desperate for work
Higher demand for construction jobs spurred by recently arrived migrants entering the sector has ripened the ground for worker exploitation, according to Angelica Novoa of New Immigrant Community Empowerment.
Novoa said asylum-seekers are forced to accept substandard pay, sometimes as low as $10 an hour and under hazardous working conditions in order to feed their families.
Meanwhile, nonprofits are struggling to expand their enrollment capacities for state-required construction safety training as more migrants seek licenses to work in the industry. Novoa said NICE’s waitlist for their training has doubled from 300 to 600.
Novoa worries this could lead to more immigrant worker deaths and injuries, even with the enactment of Carlos’ Law.
“Even though the law exists and it's really good incentive for people to be safer, we are still worried that the new people that are coming to the city are not informed about their rights,” she said.
A 2022 report from NYCOSH found that Latino workers were more likely to die on the job. While only 10% of New York state’s construction workers are Latino, 18% of fatalities were among Latino men in 2020.
“I think every nonprofit right now is at capacity. We are over our heads trying to help, but there's too many people,” said Novoa.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Angelica Novoa's name.