New York Times Exposé Focuses on Non-Documented Construction Workers and the Work Dangers They Face

Segundo Huerta, 46 years old, was killed on Aug. 27, 2019, after the third floor of the building where he was working crumbled, burying and trapping his body under hundreds of pounds of rubble. He was one of 12 people, 10 of them Latino, who died in construction-related accidents in 2019, according to preliminary data from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a workers’ safety advocacy group, and the Department of Buildings. The number of construction-related deaths has been consistent for the past four years.

From 2006 to 2016, nearly half of the workers at nonunion job sites in the city were Hispanic or Latino, compared with about 30 percent at union sites, according to Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. The slice of workers at nonunion sites who are Hispanic or Latino is probably more than 50 percent now, Mr. Mishel said. Undocumented workers are less likely to have the same safeguards as other workers. “Oftentimes, workers who are not documented are afraid to speak up because of their status,” said Rubén Colón, a representative of the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters union. “Employers, unscrupulous contractors, take advantage of this and push the envelope.”

In the weeks after Mr. Huerta’s death, members of the Workers Justice Project, an advocacy group, said that they had been contacted by an acquaintance of someone who was working at the Bronx site. The acquaintance told the agency that workers believed the site might be unsafe, but that they had been afraid to speak up. People associated with the Workers Justice Project said they had been shown photos of the site that captured a ceiling dipping under the weight of the material stacked above it.

Proving that a contractor is directly responsible for a worker’s death can be difficult, city officials said. Instead of criminal charges, contractors often face fines for safety violations or other wrongdoing, orders to stop or slow work, or, in more serious cases, a suspension or revocation of their licenses. In 2018, 25 construction-related arrests were made for violations such as bribery, bid-rigging or wage theft, according to the city’s Department of Investigation. Contractors found criminally liable under New York State law for a worker’s death can be fined a maximum of $10,000, an amount that worker’s advocates called paltry. The city said that contractors typically faced additional fines for other violations.

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