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Minority and Women-owned businesses being hammered by Scaffold Law

The Rev. Jacques DeGraff | 1/9/2014, 1:11 p.m.

As someone who has been an advocate for the minority- and women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) community for years, I feel obligated to set the record straight once and for all about the egregious Scaffold Law here in New York state that rich trial lawyers have been fighting to keep unchanged for decades. To me and the leadership of the Alliance for Minority and Women Construction Businesses, this is about jobs, safety and justice.

First of all, let me explain the Scaffold Law in simple terms. What this law states is that the contractor and the property owner shall be “absolutely liable” for any gravity-related injury at the workplace, regardless of fault. Meaning, even if the construction company has provided all of the safety training and equipment that the law requires and the injury was caused by employee negligence, the construction company and the property owner still bear 100 percent of the cost. There is no trial. There is no presentation of evidence. A jury is only convened to determine the amount of the settlement.

This has resulted in skyrocketing insurance and construction costs, and in some cases, this has meant that MWBE contractors can’t get insurance at all. As a result, today, our MWBE community is fighting for its very existence! If the Scaffold Law is not reformed, thousands of good paying construction jobs will be lost and MWBE contractors will not be able to get insurance. They will be forced to reduce their workforce or simply go out of business.

If we don’t reform this law, job sites will be made less safe. Without reform, the good guys and bad guys will continue to be treated the same, eliminating the incentive for contractors to make job sites safer, which then puts hardworking members of our community at risk. The current system punishes good contractors who have good safety records with higher costs.

At a time when our mayor is calling for universal pre-K, let me tell you what not reforming the Scaffold Law means. It means that 4,500 pre-K seats will not get built in our neighborhoods. The School Construction Authority will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on insurance rather than building schools to alleviate overcrowding, eliminate trailers and fix existing dilapidated buildings here in New York City where we live and where our children go to school.

New York is the only state in the country that doesn’t allow contractors or owners to defend themselves in court. The people defending the status quo are the trial lawyers. You see, these lawyers cruise construction sites waiting for an accident to occur. When and if one does, it is an automatic pay day for the lawyer who represents the “injured” party. The lawyer does not have to prove a case or present any evidence. The lawyer’s only job is to negotiate a settlement and take their cut, which is typically more than one-third of the settlement.

The trial lawyers have spent millions of dollars lobbying the state Legislature over the years to keep the law as is to make sure they continue to get paid large settlements for doing no work. They also use ridiculous lies and rhetoric to try justify keeping this law unchanged.

New York is the only state with this type of law. Our law hasn’t been updated or amended in 129 years. The time to change it is now, and we’ll be in Albany demanding that our legislators stand up for us. Won’t you add your voice as we seek jobs, safety and justice?

Please join us at www.awmcb.com.

The Rev. Jacques DeGraff is the first vice president of 100 Black Men and co-chair of the Alliance for Minority and Women Construction Businesses.