April 30, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – On May 5, 2015, 25-year-old Air Force veteran Christian Ginesi was installing elevator-door frames at the Riu Plaza New York Times Square hotel on West 46th Street. He never finished his shift. The platform he was standing on suddenly stalled five feet above the 24th-floor landing, and when Ginesi tried to jump to safety, he slipped and plummeted down the shaft to his death.
The elevator contractor he was working for didn’t have a license to work in New York City, was using “unapproved, unsafe, unsuitable electrical equipment” for the lift, and hadn’t installed safety netting in the shaft. On April 28, 2016, more than 100 people from a dozen-odd city unions gathered across the street from the newly opened hotel for Workers Memorial Day. They commemorated Ginesi and other workers who’ve died on the job, calling out their names while laying white flowers in front of a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk.
“One of the hardest things for me is walking up Eighth Avenue and past this job,” said Lenny Legotte, president of International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1. “Christian Ginesi died a preventable death.” Seven workers have died building elevators in New York State in the last year, he said, six of them on nonunion jobs.
The rally focused on deaths in construction and at Verizon. New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez urged the crowd to “redouble our efforts for safety in the workplace.” The last 12 months, he added, have been a “tremendously tragic year” in construction, with 17 workers killed on the job, all but one on nonunion sites.
At Verizon, nine workers have been electrocuted since 2002, said Micki Siegel de Hernández, health and safety director for Communications Workers of America District 1. One of those was Douglas LaLima, a 37-year-old father of four, who was installing FiOS cables on a telephone pole in East New York in September 2011 when he accidentally touched a 4,000-volt Con Ed line. In 2012, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Verizon $140,000 for repeated violations, including not giving its technicians adequate training for working near high-voltage lines, failing to provide them with protective high-voltage gloves and helmets, and not giving them equipment to ground cables. The company is on OSHA’s “severe violators” list, Siegel de Hernández said.
When Verizon harasses technicians to do more, “the first thing that suffers is safety,” said Irene Abraham, a striking CWA Local 1109 member with more than 20 years on the job as a lineswoman. “The only way we are going to fix this issue is to have a union of unions.”
The Elevator Constructors have been lobbying the state legislature to pass a bill called the Elevator Safety Act. The measure would set basic training standards for elevator construction and license mechanics and contractors. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, Legotte said.
“It’s appalling that the state where elevators rise the fastest and the highest doesn’t have such standards,” he told the crowd. Workers on the Riu Hotel site still don’t have helmets or proper harnesses, he added. “It’s disgusting.”
The Assembly has passed the bill every year from 2012 to 2015, but it has never reached the floor in the state Senate, said Elevator Constructors organizer Mike Halpin. The Senate Labor Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on it May 3, and it has 45 cosponsors, including Republican Majority Leader John J. Flanagan. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he would sign it, Halpin said.
“We know what causes fatalities at work, and we know the solutions,” said Charlene Obernauer, head of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health—enforcement, training, and union jobs. “We need to make sure that people are following the laws we already have. We need to hold criminal contractors, criminal companies accountable—lock them up.”
Obernauer said that Christian Ginesi had told friends that working in nonunion construction was more dangerous than serving in Afghanistan, where he worked as an aircraft mechanic and was once hit by rocket-attack shrapnel.
According to the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job Report, released April 27, 4,821 workers were killed on the job in the U.S. in 2014, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. In comparison, about 2,400 American servicemembers have been killed in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and 4,485 died in the nine years of the Iraq war.