The Dark Side of America’s Gleaming Skyscrapers
In 2014, at age 19, Eric Mendoza left his farming village outside Mexico City and crossed the Rio Grande. Once in the United States, he worked construction jobs to pay his way across the country. From Texas, Mendoza traveled to rural North Carolina, where he built homes. At a Metro PCS store, he bought a cellphone for $100 so he could call his mother, Elizabeth, who had come to the U.S. when Eric was 8.
On his new phone, Eric told his mother that he had finally arrived. He said North Carolina’s open fields reminded him of home. “He told me, ‘Mom, why can’t you come to me here?’” Elizabeth recalled recently, speaking through a translator. Her life was in New York, she replied. So Eric traveled to Florida, where more construction jobs helped him save for the $700 journey to New York in a raitero, a long-distance taxi filled with strangers. He arrived in the city on a Monday, at six in the morning, and saw his mother for the first time in more than 10 years. He held her thin frame and said, “You have to eat.”
Elizabeth took two days off from her job at a factory and together they rode the crowded subway from Queens to Manhattan. Eric was overwhelmed. “When he got to New York, he saw that this was a lot of pressure for an immigrant, and he cried,” Elizabeth told me. Eric grew up in open spaces, she said, roaming fields with his ill-behaved dog, which ate the neighbor’s chickens and turkeys. Once, when he was a boy, a violent thunderstorm rolled across the farm and Elizabeth went searching frantically for Eric. She found him standing atop an irrigation system, laughing at the sky.
Soon after Eric arrived in New York, Elizabeth contacted a friend whose husband was in construction to ask about work for her son. The friend’s husband got Eric a job working for a subcontractor of Skyline Restoration, a Long Island City–based firm that specializes in restoring historic buildings, including the Plaza and the Flatiron.
Together, Eric and Elizabeth shopped at Home Depot for wire cutters, pliers, a drill, and a yellow-and-black toolbox, on which he wrote his name. On workdays, Eric rose at 5:30, dressing in long-sleeved shirts, thick jeans, steel-toed boots, and a blue hard hat. At first he cleaned debris from demolition sites, but soon he advanced to building and repairing brick and cinder-block walls. According to his mother, Eric liked the difficult work. “It was not something everybody could do,” she said.
In New York, union construction workers make $30 to $60 an hour, depending on the type of work they do, plus overtime. Eric was hired as a nonunion laborer. Initially, he earned $100 to $130 a day, according to his mother. She said he was paid in cash, with no overtime pay, for shifts that could stretch to 13 hours. (Skyline contends that Eric earned higher wages and was paid time and a half for any overtime hours he worked.)
With his earnings, Eric bought Hawaiian pizza and Mexican candy, and helped his mother pay their rent. On weekends, Elizabeth said, Eric played soccer in Flushing and went fishing on Long Island with co-workers. As his skills grew, his earnings did as well. He disliked the subway and bought a used car. Eric didn’t tell his mother about the danger of his work, but she saw the videos he posted on Facebook, some shot while he was suspended high in the air.
In 2019, Skyline was hired to repair the facade of One Pierrepont Street, a 13-story prewar co-op with 24 apartments, which sell for more than $5 million, on average. The building’s stately facade is covered in white stone panels engraved with clovers. It has a lush private garden appointed with wrought-iron furniture and ringed by high hedges and a tall, spiked fence. A doorman presides over a black-and-white-tiled lobby adorned with antiques. Eric was replacing bricks beneath a rooftop water tower at One Pierrepont when he fell to his death.
This is one of the most dangerous times in generations to be an immigrant construction worker in New York City. Last March, when much of the city closed for business because of the coronavirus pandemic, many construction sites remained open for weeks, the work deemed essential and the laborers forced to choose between working in close, unsanitary quarters and losing a paycheck. The Queens neighborhoods where many workers live became the epicenter of the city’s initial outbreak. By mid-May, one in 287 residents of Jackson Heights had died from COVID-19, according to a report by the City University of New York. In the fall, as rates of transmission spiked across the U.S., New York City construction sites again became a source of outbreaks. Even setting aside the pandemic, construction workers are dying on the job at alarmingly high rates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationwide, 20 percent of all worker fatalities in 2019 occurred on private construction sites.
Ensuring the safety and fair pay of construction workers has traditionally been the chief function of their unions, and New York City was once home to the most powerful unions in the nation. Their influence, however, has waned in recent decades. The Great Recession hit the city’s contractors hard. The dissolution of venerable companies that had employed a unionized workforce cleared the way for outer-borough and out-of-state contractors that did not. In 2009, for the first time in a century, nonunion workers built more private-sector construction in New York City than union workers did. Corruption, too, played a role in the diminishment of union strength. In October, federal prosecutors indicted James W. Cahill, the president of the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents some 200,000 construction workers, and 10 other union members for accepting more than $100,000 in bribes in a scheme to allow nonunion workers to win contracts. Cahill denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty.
Nonunion shops gained a foothold in the city’s construction market as it rebounded, then entered a boom cycle that lasted nearly a decade. The new players tapped into a large labor pool of immigrant workers from South and Central America, many of them undocumented. (The building-trade unions have a long history of excluding minority workers, including Latino immigrants, though some unions, at least, have made efforts in recent years to protect the rights of immigrant workers and shield them from deportation.) These workers can be marshaled through Facebook and WhatsApp or picked up along paradas—stretches of outer-borough boulevards where workers gather at dawn and wait for subcontractors to drive up and announce their needs for the day: plumber, electrician, framer, painter.
As the number of unionized workers on jobs across New York decreased, the number of injuries shot up. According to an investigation by Crain’s New York Business, reported injuries on New York City construction sites were higher in 2018 than in any other year since the 2008 recession. In its most recent annual report of construction fatalities, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a worker-advocacy group, found that 86 percent of the workers who died on private job sites were nonunion. (The report also found that falls were the leading cause of death on construction sites in New York City and State.) As is the case nationwide, Latino workers in New York suffer disproportionately high rates of worker fatalities. In 2018, Latinos represented 10 percent of all workers in New York State but 19 percent of those who had died on the job.
On the morning of his death, Eric Mendoza arrived at One Pierrepont Street with another worker. Mendoza’s job was to rebrick columns that jut upward from the roof like a castle turret, enclosing a water tank. “They just had 20 or 40 bricks to go,” the building’s superintendent told me.
The superintendent didn’t see Mendoza fall (he was rebooting a cable box for a resident), but he said that a porter washing a window saw him land, having fallen 13 stories from the roof to the concrete courtyard below. In a statement to The Atlantic, Skyline attested that “all safety and regulatory requirements in place at the city, state, and federal level were fully complied with and satisfied.” But the day of the accident, in separate inspections, both New York City’s Department of Buildings and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration documented safety violations on One Pierrepont’s roof. “Construction worker fell off building … inspection also reveal[s] that there were no safety measures in place to safeguard workers performing an operation,” a DOB inspector wrote, noting the absence of a guardrail at the work site’s edge and of a harness on Mendoza’s body.
The DOB inspector also recorded a “housekeeping” violation, indicating that the work site was cluttered with plywood, tools, and debris that posed a tripping hazard. The day-of report concluded that Skyline should “stop all work on roof and exterior level, provide safety measures, call … for re-inspection”—a directive too late to help Mendoza. (The DOB later issued two violations to Skyline, one for “work without a permit” and one for “failure to safeguard all persons and property affected by construction operations.”) OSHA inspectors recorded similar violations and levied $41,106 in penalties against Skyline for failing to erect a fall-protection system and not meeting the hazard-communication standard, which requires employers to disclose workplace dangers to their employees.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office opened an investigation into Mendoza’s death as well. Eric Gonzalez, the first Latino elected as district attorney in New York State, wouldn’t comment on the case, which has been slowed by the pandemic and remains open. But Gonzalez, who has emphasized protecting immigrants and construction workers since taking office in 2017, told me that contractors who exploit immigrant workers operate with “depraved indifference” toward the lives of their employees. (The DOB investigation into the cause of Mendoza’s death is also still pending.)
Skyline contests the DOB and OSHA violations; it is appealing the findings from both agencies. The company also notes that Mendoza was not employed directly by Skyline, but by a subcontractor. According to Sara Feldman, the Worker Rights Director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, a worker center based in Queens, this is a common arrangement, especially on nonunion construction sites, where workers are sometimes unsure of whom, exactly, they are working for. In Mendoza’s case, the subcontractor was the Jaen Restoration Corporation. The company is registered at a residential address on Long Island. I looked up the address, and found that it appeared to be the home of a longtime Skyline executive named Jasen Geraghty. Reached by phone, Geraghty confirmed that the registered chief officer of the Jaen Corporation is his wife. In any event, the fact that Mendoza was employed by a subcontractor does not mean that his safety was someone else’s concern. As the general contractor, Skyline held legal responsibility for the workers on the site, including those employed by subcontractors. (After Mendoza’s death, OSHA issued violations to Jaen similar to those it had issued to Skyline; Jaen paid its fines.)
In its statement to The Atlantic, Skyline said, in part:
The management and employees of Skyline were deeply saddened by the unexplained and tragic death of Mr. [Eric] Mendoza, an employee of one of Skyline’s subcontractors. Skyline takes matters of construction site safety, public safety, and the health of individuals on its job sites extremely seriously. Moreover, Skyline requires that all of its subcontractors fully comply with all city, state and federal requirements. Skyline verified that Mr. Mendoza possessed all of the requisite training, certifications, and experience as a competent person to perform construction work safely at the jobsite located at 1 Pierrepont Street, prior to the job’s commencement … The cause of Mr. Mendoza’s fall has never been conclusively and officially determined, as it was unwitnessed … Therefore, any conclusions drawn about Skyline’s culpability involving Mr. Mendoza’s fall are speculative at best, and would reek of scapegoating.
At the One Pierrepont job site, federal, state, and city safety laws called for the installation of a safety railing with two-by-four beams or wire cables and netting, and for workers to wear harnesses anchored to the roof. Belonging to a union would have empowered Mendoza to refuse to work without such protections. Union sites are not accident-free, but they do employ a shop steward, to whom workers can anonymously report unsafe conditions without fear of retribution.
I described Mendoza’s case to Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “This was an avoidable fatality,” he told me. I’d reached LaBarbera by phone in his seventh-floor office in Midtown Manhattan. As we spoke, he said he was looking out at union construction workers on a rooftop across the street. “They are tied off and there is a guardrail around the perimeter of the roof,” he said.
The week Mendoza fell from One Pierrepont, he was one of three New York City construction workers to die on nonunion building sites. On April 8, a piece of stone parapet broke off 311 East 50th Street and struck Nelson Salinas. Bloodied and dangling from a suspended scaffold seven stories high, Salinas screamed in Spanish, “I’m going to fall!” before losing consciousness, The New York Times reported. Firefighters broke an apartment window and pulled Salinas inside, but he died at the hospital. On April 13, a seven-and-a half-ton counterweight fell off a crane constructing a 25-story luxury condo building near the corner of Varick and Broome Streets, in SoHo. The weight crushed Gregory Echevarria, 34, a crane rigger who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I didn’t see it, but I heard he was split in half. You are talking about 15,000–16,000 pounds,” one of Echevarria’s co-workers told the New York Post.
Gruesome stories such as these are hardly unique to New York City. In October 2019, a building that was to be a new Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans collapsed while under construction, killing three workers and injuring dozens more. Two of the bodies were so thoroughly trapped inside the unstable wreckage that officials initially deemed them impossible to retrieve. A tarp was strung up to shield the bodies from view. Months later, high winds loosened the makeshift shroud, revealing to passersby on the streets of the French Quarter the decaying cadaver of one of the two men still entombed in the site. The bodies were finally retrieved in August, 10 months after the collapse.
In theory, worker safety is the purview of OSHA. Under the Trump administration, however, the agency reduced its number of inspections and published dramatically fewer press releases designed to shame employers that violated safety codes. The administration slowed hiring and left senior positions vacant. In Donald Trump’s last year in office, OSHA employed fewer federal inspectors than at any other time since 1975—just 862 to oversee nearly 8 million workplaces. The average number of annual inspections during the first three years of Trump’s presidency was 5,000 fewer than during Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s administrations.
Even at its most robust, OSHA alone can’t protect workers. One of the agency’s main roles is to document and fine employers for safety lapses after the fact. “OSHA can’t inspect all sites—it can barely inspect a tiny portion of construction sites on which things are constantly changing,” David Michaels, who led the agency for seven years under Obama, told me. Dan Walcott, the political director for the New York City District Council of Carpenters, put it more pointedly: “OSHA comes if there’s a body bag.”
With regulators understaffed and unions sidelined, workplace-safety violations go largely unpunished. In 2017, Juan Chonillo, a nonunion carpenter from Ecuador, fell nearly 30 stories to his death. After moving to New York to support his five children, Chonillo was hired as a subcontractor to do carpentry at 161 Maiden Lane, a 60-story luxury apartment tower near the South Street Seaport. Soaring and slender, the building’s surface will reflect the sky over the East River. The building has attracted attention from the city’s tabloids thanks to an acrimonious dispute between its developer and its contractor over the building’s foundation, which has allegedly caused the tower to tilt three inches north.
Less attention was paid when Chonillo died there on a Thursday in early autumn. While pouring concrete on the 29th floor for the construction firm SSC High Rise, he stood on a moving platform suspended from a crane. The platform was designed to move supplies, not workers, from floor to floor of the building’s skeletal structure. Nevertheless, an SSC High Rise foreman directed Chonillo and four others to ride the platform, and when its mechanism tangled, Chonillo unhooked his harness to free it. The platform jolted suddenly, shaking in the air. Chonillo, untethered, fell freely to the second-story scaffolding, landing with a thud heard by pedestrians walking below.
After an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, SSC pleaded guilty to manslaughter for its role in Chonillo’s death. The penalty was $10,000, the maximum fine permitted under New York law, which insulates companies from criminal prosecution.
In 2017, New York State Democrats introduced Carlos’s Law, a bill named for Carlos Moncayo, a 22-year-old who was buried alive while excavating the foundation of the site that was once home to the restaurant Pastis. The bill would increase the maximum fine for endangering a worker to $500,000 and allow prosecutors to seek prison sentences for negligent developers. Three years in a row, the bill failed to pass.
The Biden administration has pledged to set a new tone on worker safety. David Michaels, the OSHA head under Obama, hopes that President Biden’s Department of Justice will prosecute irresponsible executives of construction firms whose workers die and “make an example out of them.”
Martin Walsh, Biden’s pick for secretary of labor, is currently the mayor of Boston, but his background is in the construction trades. He ostensibly understands the dangerous conditions that construction workers face. Walsh joined his local laborers’ union at age 21, rising to head the Boston Building Trades, a union umbrella organization. In that position, he developed the Building Pathways program, designed to bring women and people of color into the trades. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Walsh said that OSHA has a responsibility to protect workers on job sites. “I’ve seen personally in the city of Boston many instances where unsafe conditions have led to serious injury to workers and, in some cases throughout this country, death,” he said.
Reversing the decline of construction unions will be a taller order, though other groups have tried to fill the void. A network of worker centers, such as NICE, supports New York City’s immigrant laborers, providing free safety-training courses, organizing rallies with unions to protest wage theft, and, recently, supplying food to members who are out of work or have fallen ill during the pandemic. But worker centers are not unions—they can’t bargain for higher wages or install a shop steward at a job site.
Without further protections, workers will continue to die. In July, as New York City emerged from its initial coronavirus outbreak, Mario Salas Vittorio, a 59-year-old immigrant from Mexico, reported for work at an apartment building in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. Vittorio had worked construction his whole life; like Eric Mendoza, he specialized in facade repair. As he was climbing the scaffolding that encased the building, a piece of stone parapet broke off, knocking the scaffolding to the ground. Vittorio was killed, and three other workers were injured. (A DOB investigation into the accident is still pending.) After receiving word of his death, Vittorio’s wife and stepdaughter, Angela Molina, went to the job site, where news cameras found them. Speaking through tears, Molina told a News 4 New York reporter, “It’s supposed to be safe here.”
Susannah Jacob is a freelance journalist, history doctoral student at Yale, and former speechwriter for President Barack Obama.
Co-published with The Atlantic.