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Insurance Company-Funded Democrat Behind Attempt to Undermine Law That Protects Workers Suffering from Scaffolding Fall Injuries

In New York, legislators are looking to change a law that has been on the books since 1885 which protects workers who fall from scaffolding on construction sites.  

For the past 128 years, the burden of proof following a fall-related injury has been on the contractor. If the work site is proven by the contractor to have been safe, the contractor is off the hook.  Now, Sen. Patrick Gallivan (R-Erie) and Assemblyman Joe Morelle (D-Rochester) are looking to amend “the Scaffold Law” to add language which would require juries to consider actions of the worker when determining culpability.  At stake are millions of dollars in insurance money and worker safety in general.

Labor unions, business interests and developers are now watching Albany as this attempt at “reform” is being pushed hard before the legislature adjourns for the summer tomorrow.  For the conservative, pro-business Gallivan, supporting such a law makes sense.  For Morelle, on the other hand, this bill appears out of step with the Democratic party’s traditional position regarding worker safety. That is until you check his 2010 campaign donations and discover four insurance companies in the top five. The fifth top donor, a fairly anonymous company named Eponymous Associates, has been linked to corrupt NYC politician Marty Markowitz.  

With this information, it is difficult to see Morelle as doing anything other than making good with his donors at the expense of injured workers.

Former director of the NYC Central Labor Council, Edward Ott, told the New York Daily News that changing the law “is really all about greed.”  In years past, attempts to kill the law at the behest of the Real Estate Board of New York have been thwarted.  Now, the course has been changed and business interests have found the pawns to do their bidding under the farcical veil of “reform.”

Ott told NYDN that if the law passes, contractors will be off the hook for major injuries.

Anything that reduces the incentive to protect workers by running the job right is not a reform,” he said. “There’s no good reason to do this.

Ott says workers are not in a position to control conditions on a job because they fear being fired if they complain about safety.

Every day they have to make a choice between their safety and their income,” he said. “Most people aren’t going to risk losing their job.”

In the NYDN story, writer Greg Smith supplies the anecdote of 30-year old construction worker Sean Dowdell. Dowdell was injured in a scaffolding fall and lost his leg.  Even under the current, worker-supportive law, Dowdell has had difficulty collecting money for his injuries. In a post Gallivan and Morelle world, it will be virtually impossible:

In February 2012, Dowdell — an experienced foreman — was working on the deck of a luxury condo known as Queens West, directing a crane operator hoisting a load of steel rebar.

Suddenly he stepped on plywood decking that was not secured. It gave way and he plunged 20 feet, breaking a leg so badly it had to be amputated.

Since then he’s undergone repeated surgeries. Days after his leg was removed below the knee, Hurricane Sandy struck and he had to be evacuated from NYU Hospital, enduring excruciating pain as firefighters carried him in a sling down darkened stairs.

Today he is relearning how to walk and has had difficulty finding a prosthetic leg that fits properly. He feels under the new law, he would be blamed for unsafe conditions over which he had no control.

“I’m in construction for five years,” he said. “Some companies are really good with it and make sure everything is closed up. Then you have some that aren’t. Everybody’s different. A lot of the places, they don’t do (safety) because of the constant push (to finish a job). I see people fall in holes all of the time.”

Dowdell’s lawsuit against the owner is pending. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) cited Dowdell’s employer, Winco Co., and issued a $6,300 fine that was later reduced to $4,000.

“Four thousand dollars is nothing to them,” said Dowdell’s attorney, David Mayer of Sacks & Sacks, which specializes in construction cases. Mayer says the Scaffold Law is crucial because the penalties handed out under OSHA are often so small, they create little incentive for developers and contractors to make job sites safer.

What Dowdell needs is politicians willing to go to bat for him and his co-workers.  Holding bad contractors responsible for neglect is vital.  Instead, people like Joe Morelle are going the crony capitalism route and doing whatever those who tug at their purse strings ask.


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