New York State Exposed: Scaffold Law reform?

Updated: 06/09/2014 5:27 PM
Created: 06/09/2014 6:32 AM WHEC.com
By: Rebecca Leclair

Jobs are critical to the state’s economy. One law that makes it very difficult for construction companies to compete and create those jobs is the Scaffold Law.

Many construction company owners were counting on Governor Cuomo to change the Scaffold Law this year. It has been on the books for 130 years and New York is the only state with a law like it.

Mary Ellen Belding has been on the phone for weeks trying to get insurance to keep her construction company operating.

Mary Ellen Belding said, “There was one potential carrier that looked at my equipment list and saw that we owned scaffold--turned me down.”

In October 2013, shortly after News10NBC featured Belding’s company and her struggle to pay a six-figure insurance premium, Travelers canceled her policy. She has a new policy now, but it is very limited.

Belding said, “I cannot work on bridges to do any rehabilitation, or concrete demolition or repair of shotcrete, which was one of our specialties.”

She’s not allowed to do elevated work, so instead of bidding on projects like repairing the Chili Avenue Bridge that shut down last month, she is relegated to projects like building outdoor staircases at Spencerport Schools. The insurance company says only one story high.

Belding said, “They don't want to take the risk and they can't afford to from a business perspective.”

New York’s Scaffold Law dates back to 1885 and says the contractor is 100% liable if a worker falls and is injured on the job. Insurance companies don't want to pay huge settlements to injured workers, so they jack up premiums and try to limit the chance for falls.

Pro-business groups, like Unshackle Upstate, want to change the scaffold law to make all negligent parties responsible, including the worker. In Illinois, when that state got rid of its Scaffold Law in 1995, construction jobs increased and workplace fatalities dropped. Constructions costs are typically five percent higher in New York because of the Scaffold Law.

So why did Governor Cuomo not reform the law?

Brian Sampson, Unshackle Upstate Director, said, “He back tracked and said the trial attorneys are very powerful. Now he's not sure this is a priority of the business community. Let’s be clear, governor, it's a priority.”

When Andrew Cuomo announced a start-up business at RIT last week, News10NBC asked him why the change of heart.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “Well, we have been working very hard over the past few years to remove as many barriers to economic development as we can.”

He wouldn't talk about scaffold reform and there was no mention of the trial attorneys who last year spent two million dollars lobbying and donating to New York political campaigns. One trial attorney says the buck stops with Cuomo.

Mike Harren, trial attorney, said, “The trial bar doesn't have the political clout to stop the governor. The trial bar is speaking for the victims and the labor movement is speaking for the workers, saying shifting the responsibility on workers is not the answer to the question.”

More information on the Scaffold Law:

Scaffold Law Reform

Labor's Agenda Would Benefit All Workers, Not Just the Wealthy Few (Rochester-Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation

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