The Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff and Lou Coletti, the president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, have found themselves on the same side of an issue. They both want to alter the scaffold law.Photo: Newscom
Andrew J. Hawkins May 4, 2014 12:01 a.m.
The Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff and Lou Coletti tangled over the hiring of minority, nonunion contractors and other matters for years—Rev. DeGraff as a social-justice advocate for several organizations, and Mr. Coletti as president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, a group of union contractors. “We found ourselves on opposite sides of a number of issues,” Rev. DeGraff said.
But both of their constituencies are hurt by Labor Law 240, better known as the scaffold law, which holds contractors and property owners 100% liable for any gravity-related accident in which they are even minimally at fault. So they have joined forces to get state lawmakers to alter it.
“This issue is of such urgency and so pervasive, that it brings us together with a sense of survival,” Rev. DeGraff said.
They have their work cut out: Gov. Andrew Cuomo told Crain’s last month that the law is immutable because of the state’s powerful trial-lawyer lobby. Even more disheartening to reformers, the governor said the law was not high enough on the business community’s agenda for him to focus on it.
Mr. Coletti, though, praised Mr. Cuomo for blaming the lawyers. “I didn’t see the governor’s comments as necessarily bad,” Mr. Coletti said. “We are not going to give up.”
A broad coalition of business groups, construction firms and real estate developers are pursuing a multipronged strategy that seems to be making incremental progress. They are focusing on members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, arguing that the scaffold law threatens the viability of minority contractors by escalating insurance costs. The coalition estimates having spent more than $600,000 on radio and print ads in minority publications, among other efforts.
They are now also seeking the city’s support. Mr. Coletti is arranging to meet with a senior mayoral aide to explain how the law hinders the administration’s plan to create affordable housing and classroom space.
“We don’t accept that this can’t get done this year,” Rev. DeGraff said, with an eye toward the scheduled end of Albany’s legislative session on June 19.
The coalition suffered another setback last week when SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government distanced itself from its own report criticizing the scaffold law. The institute’s director said the industry-backed study was flawed.
Critics of the law shrugged off the news and turned their sights on Mr. Cuomo. In an April 30 letter, more than two dozen business and real estate groups pleaded with the governor to take a stronger hand in reforming the law.
One perceived obstacle is that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is of counsel to a personal-injury law firm whose settlement commissions are likely enhanced by the scaffold law. Mr. Silver is also known to be very responsive to his caucus members, however, and some have been receptive to the law’s opponents. Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara, chairman of the minority caucus, and Manhattan Assemblyman Keith Wright are listening to reformers’ arguments. But no champion of reform has emerged from the caucus.
“No one wants to stick their head out of the fox hole,” Mr. DeGraff said.
Opponents of Labor Law 240, also known as the scaffold law, are redoubling their reform efforts in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s comments to Crain’s last week that nothing can be done to alter the law this year.
A broad coalition … are urging Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who emphasizes a pro-business agenda, to take a harder stance on the scaffold law, which they argue drives up the cost of building in New York. ..
Still, business groups were scrambling in the wake of Mr. Cuomo’s comments last week during a Crain’s interview, in which the governor said that any effort to reform the law would likely be derailed by the state’s powerful trial lawyer lobby, which donates millions to the campaigns of state officials across the spectrum. Perhaps more damaging to reform efforts, the governor expressed that scaffold law reform was not high enough on the business community’s agenda for him to focus on it…
Dear Governor Cuomo:
In response to your comments published in Crain’s New York Business, we write to reaffirm that Scaffold Law reform is a priority for the entire business community because it impedes economic growth, drives up the cost of doing business and property taxes and hampers our ability to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.