Virus Rules Let Construction Workers Keep Building Luxury Towers

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where, like most New Yorkers, residents are largely staying home as the city reels from the coronavirus pandemic, construction workers building a luxury condominium tower are being forced to continue working in confined and often unsanitary conditions.

In the heart of Manhattan, work continues on an upscale Hard Rock Hotel, even after word spread that up to four workers had tested positive for the virus, prompting some laborers to storm off the site.

In Brooklyn, workers at an apartment building who have had to reuse the same masks every day were ordered back on the job even after a fellow worker had contracted the virus.

While life in New York City and the surrounding region has come to a screeching halt, the construction industry, one of the region’s main economic engines and biggest employers, is humming along as if nothing has changed.

Laborers work side by side, cramming 20-people deep into service elevators and sharing the same portable restroom.

While Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has told New Yorkers to stay indoors in a furious effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, construction workers have been deemed essential employees, meaning they have to continue working even as most of the work force stays home.

“I’m essential to the pocketbooks of rich contractors and essential for spreading the virus, but that’s about it,” said Kirk Gibbs, 57, an electrician at a new parking garage in Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s not essential for us to be here right now.”

Across the country, governors and mayors have urged roughly half of the United States — at least 179 million people — to stay home. The only people who should go outside, they say, are emergency responders and those considered essential, a wide-ranging term with different meanings in each state.

In New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and most of the country, construction workers have fallen into the essential category. In New York City, which had nearly 158,000 construction jobs in 2018, laborers are hauling hard hats and tools on nearly empty subways and trains every morning on the way to job sites.

Construction sites, even during normal times, are notoriously dirty. Workers often share a single portable toilet, which rarely has soap or hand sanitizer. Running water is not common.

None of the recent safety protocols recommended by public health officials are practical at a job site, workers said. They share tools, and procedures require that they watching over one another in proximity.

There is no social distancing. Some workers wear protective masks, which are in short supply.

“They are exposing themselves in groups to the virus,” said a construction manager in New York City who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from his employer. “You have these people getting paid very little and being forced to work to build condos for $20 million each.”

Construction sites are particularly dynamic workplaces, with new workers coming and going all the time, greatly increasing the number of people who come in contact with one another, said Jack Dennerlein, a professor at Northeastern University whose research includes health and safety issues in the construction industry.

“It’s a dirty job, and one of the things they have always feared is taking their toxins home,” Professor Dennerlein said. “Now they are worried about Covid-19,” he added, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Mr. Cuomo signaled that his administration was open to tightening the rules on the kind of construction that should continue during his stay-at-home order.

“We are and have been reviewing this issue, and will continue to refine the state’s essential business guidance as the public health concerns dictate,” Jack Sterne, a spokesman for the governor, said. “All construction sites must enforce social distancing.”

“If a site cannot guarantee the health and safety of their ​workers, it must close,” he added.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose office is working with the state on possibly stopping some construction, said some of the work, like infrastructure and low-cost housing, remained vital.

“Luxury condos are not the priority in this city, but there’s a lot of other things being worked on that are important,” the mayor told reporters at a news conference on Sunday.

In recent weeks, Mr. Gibbs said, almost everyone he has worked with in upstate New York, including himself, have been sick with a cough, a runny nose or body aches. He said he was not aware of anyone who had been tested.

“They should really shut down these projects for two months,” he said. “I’d just hate to see more people die and get sick.”

A 37-year-old electrician working at an apartment building in Manhattan’s Financial District said that he asked the foreman at his construction site on Friday about whether their tools would be sanitized at the end of each day.

“He got offended and laughed at me,” said the electrician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share his story. He added that he has been carrying around a bar of soap he recently bought at CVS to wash his hands at work.

Before the sudden collapse of the economy, a booming construction business in New York City over the past decade had helped transform the skyline, erecting soaring skyscrapers south of Central Park, in Midtown Manhattan and on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

But now, while the well-off who will eventually occupy many of those buildings stay home, construction workers say they face an agonizing choice. If they refuse to work, they could lose their jobs during a cratering economy. But if they do work, they worry about contracting the virus and spreading it to their families.

Some construction workers and their relatives have used social media to pressure Mr. Cuomo to exempt the construction industry from the list of essential workers.

Using the hashtag #StopConstruction, they have posted photos of construction workers in tight quarters.

Some work sites in New York and outside the city have shut down.

In Lower Manhattan, Facebook plans to stop all construction on an office renovation after a construction worker recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

The person will not return to work until they are cleared by a doctor, a Facebook spokeswoman said.

“Our general contractor has taken all necessary precautionary measures, following the advice of public health officials, as we prioritize everyone’s health and safety,” the spokeswoman, Jamila Reeves, said.

But many more construction sites are still active.

Last Friday, shortly after Mr. Cuomo issued the stay-at-home order, the roughly 400 construction workers at the sprawling Legoland New York Resort in Goshen, N.Y., about 50 miles north of New York City, were told they would be out of their jobs.

But they were hired back on Monday after it became clear that the governor’s order would allow for all types of construction to continue, said Todd Diorio, the business manager at Laborers Local 17.

Mr. Diorio said construction managers at Legoland had taken extra precautions to protect workers. They eliminated shared lunch areas and have advised workers to spread apart.

Construction workers, he said, would likely start a new schedule in the coming days and split into two shifts, with an hour-break in between so that the job site can be disinfected.

Workers would also have their temperatures taken before they were allowed onto the site.

“These are different times,” Mr. Diorio said. “We are taking every precaution that we can.”

In Montclair, an upper middle-class suburb in New Jersey, crews of workers in hard hats and fluorescent green vests congregated at two commercial building sites on Tuesday morning.

Police cruisers were parked with their lights flashing to divert traffic, of which there was none.

On one of the sites, slated to be a parking garage, a worker stood in a trench that was being dug by another man operating a small excavator. The garage is part of a 2½-acre project that will include apartments, offices and a performance space.

A woman whose father is a 58-year-old carpenter in New York City said she was worried about the health of her father and mother, whose immune system is compromised. Her father, who has a history of heart disease, is working on an office renovation in Manhattan.

“Both of them are high-risk individuals if they contract Covid-19,” said the woman, Katherine, who asked that her surname not be published because she feared retribution against her father, who shares the name.

“His job, like almost all construction jobs, relies on a series of contracts between the general contractor and the subcontractors, so the job site will not shut down until the governor mandates it,” she said.

On Monday, at least 20 carpenters walked off the job site at the Hard Rock Hotel in Manhattan after news was shared about workers who had tested positive for the virus.

A carpenter on the project said workers had been given no extra protective gear.

The construction site, on West 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue, was shut down on Tuesday and Wednesday to be disinfected, the worker said.

“Everyone is coughing and sneezing all the debris we are breathing in on a daily basis,” the carpenter said. “I’m scared to come to work.”

Patrick McGeehan contributed reporting.

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