Climbing the Ladder: Roadblocks Faced by Immigrants in the New York City Construction Industry
Jacquelyn Pavilon and Vicky Virgin
May 23, 2022
As of 2021, immigrants comprised a larger share of the construction workforce than of any other sector in New York City (Office of the New York State Comptroller 2021). Between 2015 and 2019, immigrants comprised just 37 percent of the total New York City population, but 44 percent of the city’s labor force and 63 percent of all its construction workers (Ruggles et al. 2021). The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) estimates that in this time period, 41 percent of the immigrant construction workforce was undocumented.
Economic exploitation and safety hazards are prevalent across the entire construction industry. However, despite the essential role immigrants play in the construction industry in New York City and the United States, immigrant construction workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous conditions. Lack of employment authorization, social safety nets, English proficiency, credentials recognition, and training opportunities, as well as discrimination place immigrants at a stark disadvantage as they try to enter, negotiate, and advance in this industry. For this report, the CMS research team interviewed 16 immigrant construction workers from 10 countries and 10 other experts in this industry, including business representatives, union organizers, and representatives of community-based organizations (CBOs). Five of these representatives were immigrants and former construction workers. With research assistance from the New York-based consulting firm Locker Associates, Inc., CMS used these interviews, together with several other data sources, to examine how construction workers in New York City find employment, their work arrangements, and barriers and conditions that endanger their health, safety, and economic well-being.
The report offers the following top-line findings:
- Between 2015 and 2019, the majority of foreign-born construction workers in the United States were undocumented (54 percent). While undocumented immigrants also comprised the largest share of immigrant construction workers in New York City, their share was considerably smaller (41 percent) than in the United States at large.
- The median annual earnings for construction workers in New York City between 2015 and 2019 was $40,400. The median annual earnings of US-born citizen construction workers ($45,500) and naturalized citizen construction workers ($42,500) were much greater than those of legal noncitizen construction workers ($31,000) and undocumented construction workers ($30,100). Furthermore, when omitting workers in non-trade occupations, such as construction managers and supervisors, the median annual earnings for all construction workers citywide dropped to $36,100.
- According to respondents, many immigrants are unaware of formal job networks, such as unions or workers’ centers, when they arrive in the country. As a result, some experience exploitation by job placement agencies.
- The 46 percent wage gap between union workers and nonunion workers in the US construction industry is greater than the gap in any other industry.
- Unionized foreign-born construction workers in New York State earn 64 percent more than their nonunionized, foreign-born counterparts. As a former nonunion worker said, “There is no difference [between union and nonunion work,] except, who’s receiving the living wages, who’s receiving the safety and everything else on the jobs. Nonunion workers do the same work, except they’re not receiving the same living wages [as union workers].”
- Unions are especially important to immigrants in the construction industry in New York State. Unionized foreign-born workers in construction in New York State earn 64 percent more than their nonunionized counterparts. The union wage advantage is only 45 percent for other industries.
- Wage theft, often in the form of not paying workers for overtime, frequently goes under-reported as immigrants with little job security fear being laid off. Construction workers and other representatives reported that employers often use workers’ lack of legal status as a bargaining chip to underpay immigrants. They manipulate immigrants by claiming to be generous for providing these exploited workers the opportunity to work. As one undocumented day laborer from Mexico explained:
It was very common for us to sometimes get off work two hours past our working hours. They do not pay us for those two hours. That is basically working all day long. Nobody wants that. In those two hours, I could have already arrived home. I could already be changing, eating. I could have already cleaned myself up, done the laundry. The basic working day [pays] $120. That’s what you are going to earn – $120, regardless of whether you worked from 7:00AM to 8:00PM. It’s $120… I don’t know if [the boss] does that intentionally. I do know that all of us who work with him are immigrants. I think that’s why there is also no one, in quotes, “legal” working with him. In this case, the boss is the only “legal” person. However, you are working based on that “word of mouth.” Like, “I am giving you the opportunity.” That is the justification employers use for doing things like that.
- The need to provide for their families combined with the lack of a social “safety net” often leads immigrants to accept poor working conditions and employment arrangements. Furthermore, undocumented workers cannot claim federal benefits, constraining them even further.
- Racial discrimination occurs both on union and nonunion sites. Structural racism in the construction industry has kept people of color in lower positions. Many immigrants reported people of color being placed in lower, more physically intense jobs on site, while easier and supervisory positions were given to their white colleagues. However, immigrants often do not report discrimination in order to maintain their ability to secure jobs in the future.
- Female construction workers face pay discrimination, unfair layoffs, and harassment. However, several respondents said that while sexism exists in the construction industry, it has been diminishing.
- Undocumented workers and foreign workers with limited English proficiency are more likely to work in construction occupations with higher fatality rates.
- The nesting of subcontractors (when general contractors hire subcontractors, who possibly hire subsubcontractors, who then hire workers) has helped some contractors hide accidents and commit insurance fraud. Furthermore, this nesting has made it more difficult for immigrant workers to report and resolve wage withholding violations. Changes to New York State law have attempted to diminish wage theft by subcontractors by making general contractors liable for the actions of its subcontractors.
- Nonunion work sites regularly violate the standards intended to safeguard workers from falls.
- Venture-capital investments in construction technology in the United States grew more than 11 times faster than venture-capital investments in other industries from 2011 to 2019.
- In some ways, technological advancements have altered the mix of workers that are necessary in the construction industry. They have also opened opportunities for female workers and improved on-site safety.
- On average, construction workers have lower COVID-19 vaccination rates than workers in other industries.
In order to improve the working conditions of immigrant construction workers, this report offers a series of policy recommendations directed at public officials, policymakers, government agencies, and trade unions. For public officials, it is recommended that:
- Given that falls are the number one cause of fatalities on construction sites, the New York State Senate should not overturn the New York Scaffold Law. This law requires that employers adhere to certain standards when using scaffolding and assigns liability to parties responsible for managing projects for any accidents due to faulty or lack of scaffolding. This law protects workers when workers compensation is unavailable, not provided, or insufficient. Some business interest groups have lobbied for the law’s repeal.
- The New York State Senate should pass “Carlos’ Law.” The law is named after an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant, Carlos Moncayo, who died on a construction site that had several reported safety violations. The law would increase the fines for companies whose safety violations result in fatalities from the current $10,000 maximum to instead range from $500,000 to $1,000,000. The law would also make worker endangerment first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree felonies.
- The New York State Senate and the Real Estate Board of New York should include prevailing wages for construction workers in the New York State 421-A Affordable New York Housing Program. Set to expire in June 2022, the program requires a prevailing wage for building service employees and a minimum average wage for construction workers in certain buildings. Governor Hochul’s 421-A replacement plan would exclude construction workers from the wage provisions. If the program is renewed, it is important that construction workers be accorded the same prevailing wage standards as those in the building service trades.
- State and local representatives should attend union and workers’ centers’ meetings to gather information to make informed decisions on legislation.
- New York City should offer subsidies for workers’ centers and other CBOs to provide more safety and job training.
- The NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the NYC Department Consumer and Worker Protection should produce more materials and hold campaigns about workers’ rights and opportunities that are specific to the construction industry. These materials should also be made available in indigenous languages.
- The US Department of Labor (DOL) should ensure prevailing wages are attached to federal infrastructure funds in state and local construction projects.
- The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) should target smaller nonunion construction sites for more inspections to ensure compliance with labor laws.
- The US Congress should create a pathway to permanent residence for undocumented construction workers by passing pending legalization bills, including a rolling registry program. Under the 1929 US registry program, long-term undocumented immigrants can gain legal status by proving continuous residence in the United States since a stipulated date. Unfortunately, the required entry date to qualify has not advanced since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 19864 (Kerwin, Pacas, and Warren 2021). Moving forward and regularly advancing this date as part of a rolling registry program would decrease the undocumented immigrant population and help immigrant construction workers avoid exploitative working conditions.
The report recommends that trade unions should:
- Not exclude members on the basis of immigration status, and federal apprenticeship programs should not require social security numbers for entry.
- Ensure the continuity of work for their members, such that they are trained and retrained to be able to have stable employment within a company, rather than returning to the union hiring hall upon completion of a project.
- Offer more English language courses, Know-Your-Rights training, and awareness-raising events, including through partnerships with CBOs.
- Hire organizers and representatives that reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of their members.
 N.Y. Labor Law §240(1) (2014). https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/LAB/240.
 S. Res. S3314A, Reg. Sess. (NY 2019). https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/S3314.
 N.Y. Private Property Law §421A Affordable N.Y. Housing Program (2017). https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/laws/RPT/421-A.