Developers are taking advantage of COVID-19 construction ban loopholes, a KIYC investigation finds
A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds New Jersey's ban on nonessential construction may be having a minimal impact because developers and construction companies are taking advantage of the ban's myriad of exemptions.
Journal Squared, the luxury high-rise complex being built in Jersey City, seems like no one's idea of essential construction. In fact, two weeks ago, some construction workers there told Kane In Your Corner they were afraid of contracting COVID-19 because of the crowded conditions, and they didn't think the project was worth the risk.
"We’re building a 70-story luxury high-rise," one construction worker said at the time. "I don’t see how that’s essential or why we’re exposed to this every day. Call me crazy."
Days later, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a ban on all nonessential construction. But on Monday, work at Journal Squared continues. The project is still classified as "essential." A union official tells Kane In your Corner that's because some units there are designated as affordable housing.
Another luxury project along the Jersey City waterfront is also deemed "essential.” Jersey City Councilman James Solomon says that's because part of the basement in one building will be used for a private school, triggering the exemption for education.
"I don't think anyone thinks a tiny little private school, 10,000 square feet, means that you get to build 30 stories," Solomon says. "I mean, that's absurd."
Kane In Your Corner found similar examples across New Jersey. At Newark Liberty International Airport, where workers previously complained about their safety, work continues on a new terminal; it is deemed essential because it involves transportation. An Amazon warehouse under construction in Franklin Township, Somerset County, is considered essential because it involves a mail-order retail business. A commercial site under construction in Clifton is essential because it will include a lab where people can go for blood work.
When a job is essential, workers who don't want to risk their health working on site can be left with few options.
"If we're asked to come to work, we have to come to work," says one union worker, currently assigned to a job site in Trenton. "If we choose not to, we're put down as a 'quit', which means we're ineligible for unemployment benefits."
The job site this worker is assigned to is, of all places, the New Jersey Department of Labor building.
Kane In Your Corner asked Murphy if he would consider removing some of the exemptions from the construction ban. "I don't think we're considering any more tweaks to this for the time being," the governor replied.
Michael Zhadanovsky, a Murphy spokesman, says "many major construction projects have suspended work as required by Executive Order #122, which only provides limited exemptions."
Pressed for examples, however, a Murphy administration spokesman cited three projects, two of which had actually closed prior to the governor's executive order being issued. The Harrison Urby project in Harrison was actually fully completed in 2018. The American Dream mega-mall in East Rutherford halted construction voluntarily in mid-March, nearly a month before the governor's order, although the order eliminated any chance the developer could opt to restart construction on its own.
Some unionized workers aren't convinced they can turn to leadership for support either. After Kane In Your Corner's initial investigation, IBEW Local 102 emailed its more than 2,000 members to urge them to refrain from contacting the governor's office and news media to complain about unsafe conditions and request jobs be shut down. Instead, the union said, "if you ask for a layoff, you will be helping another brother or sister who desperately needs employment."
"I was appalled," one electrician who received the letter says. "It makes them seem like they don't care about us as workers." Several union members describe the email as "threatening" and say it makes them less likely to request a layoff, fearing it would make them look bad in the union's eyes.
"That's what a lot of us feel," one member said, "that if you do take it, it's going to be held against you.".
IBEW Local 102 Business Manager Pat Delle Cava says he never intended to pressure workers to stay on a job site. If anything, he says, his email was intended to convey the opposite message. He calls the communication "sloppy."
Kane in Your Corner noticed one significant change on job sites they observed over the past two weeks. Construction workers observed recently were much more consistently wearing masks and gloves.