Columbia-Greene officials say Scaffold Law is added price tag on capital projects

Officials in Columbia and Greene counties said New York’s law on liability for gravity-related injuries sustained on construction jobs results in higher costs for capital projects.

U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-19, recently announced he is introducing legislation that would change the standard for federally funded construction projects requiring comparable negligence in cases of workers getting hurt on the job.

“I support the congressman’s efforts,” said Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matthew Murell. “The bill would not totally do away with the law; it just ensures workers are held liable if they are the cause of their injuries. If it is the contractors’ fault, then they will be held liable.”

Columbia County passed a resolution in support of reforms to the Scaffold Law in 2014.

The legislation would not have significant direct impact on Columbia County which, according to Murell, has only had federally funded projects on certain bridges and on the county airport.

Faso announced the legislation in Albany on Tuesday, joined by contractors and heads of construction companies, where the state Legislature has not brought New York in line with all other states on the issue.

State Senate Republicans have tried for years to remove the law requiring that contractors and construction companies be held strictly liable from the books, commonly known as the Scaffold Law, calling the law unnecessary red tape.

“New York has a lot of laws like this that are seen to drive out business,” said Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden. “The insurance for contractors is higher, which costs them more, and so costs the owner of the project more, say, to build a house, or in my case, a jail.”

Greene County also passed a resolution in favor of reforming the Scaffold Law in the past.

Greene County has been planning to build a new jail, a project that is on pause right now, Groden said, but which should see some kind of movement next week after the release of a report on the project.

“I know the contractor who ultimately works on that project will have to deal with high insurance costs,” Groden said.

Attempts to remove or change the law have hit a wall in the Assembly because of the law’s popularity among unions in the state.

Faso, who once was a minority member of the State Assembly, argued the law hinders business and wastes federal tax dollars by forcing out competition for liability insurance, driving up the costs of that insurance.

“The insurance costs everyone, because that cost to contractors is passed along to the county for its projects,” Murell said. “That, with prevailing wages, adds costs to public works projects we have to hire a contractor for, 30 percent more or higher. And that costs taxpayers too.”

According to a 2013 report compiled by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is part of the SUNY system, the Scaffold Law costs taxpayers $785 million annually.

“In terms of safety, we need all the safety precautions as possible,” Murell said.

Unions have fought proposed changes to the Scaffold Law tooth and nail, arguing it will cause safety standards on construction sites to decline.

“This law doesn’t even promote a safer workplace environment for construction workers, as our state is no safer for workers than the 49 other states, which do not have this liability statute,” Faso said in his announcement Tuesday, where organized labor was conspicuously absent.

Groden called the law a double-edged sword. “There are people who say it drives out competition, but others who say it protects workers,” he said.

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