F.For years, non-union recruitment agencies in the New York construction industry have targeted workers who have recently been released from prison and are on parole or other judicial surveillance programs to ensure what many believe to be low wages and a serious safety hazard for employees.
Known as “body shops,” these recruitment agencies hire and pay workers to do work for third-party companies and benefit from a cut in wages paid by the company. The recruitment agencies ultimately compete in a race to cut labor costs by cutting wages and cutting back on education and security.
Former prisoners are usually required to seek work as a condition of their release so they may be willing to take any job they can get to avoid being sent back to prison if they breach parole. It’s not an empty threat: New York jailed nearly three times the national average in 2019 for technical parole violations. That’s 40% of all people admitted to state prisons under unsafe working conditions.
In 2020, New York City had an estimated 9,173 re-entry construction workers, and construction represented approximately 24% of all jobs for recently released inmates. The typical wage for these workers is just above the city’s minimum wage, excluding benefits, while union members in New York’s construction industry start at more than $ 28 an hour plus benefits.
Shortly after his release from prison in New York City, John Simmons began working for a body shop in July 2016.
“This was basically the only job I qualified for because of a mistake in my life,” said Simmons. “Giving me a second chance doesn’t just mean giving me a job, but also making sure I can make a living. How do you give me a second chance while preparing me to fail for a body shop? “
Simmons said he struggled to make ends meet while working in body shop and suffered from toothache for three years because he had no insurance and couldn’t afford to get treatment.
When he started to work in the body shop, he was entrusted with cleaning tasks on construction sites until one day he was relegated to construction without training.
“One day they told me this had to be done, they just put a power tool in my hand and told me to go to work,” Simmons explained. “The body shops have no respect, care, or concern for the people they hire.”
He was not provided with personal protective equipment such as gloves or protective masks at work. He recalled an incident in which he was ordered to climb the scaffolding at the edge of a construction site 12 stories without a seatbelt in order to put up a safety net in anticipation of an upcoming storm.
“It was like climbing up jungle gyms to protect the site from the storm,” added Simmons. “Many of us feared that if we complained if we said something we would lose our jobs, and one of the conditions of probation is that you get and keep a job. So we were afraid to express ourselves. “
Body shop critics have argued that their practices create a subordinate workforce in the construction industry, where predominantly black and brown workers without benefits receive significantly lower wages, while employers receive tax breaks for their hiring and are exempt from workers’ compensation and unemployment taxes and unionization .
Workers and unions are calling for New York City Council to pass the bodywork law. The proposed law would create a regulatory framework to increase the transparency and oversight of subcontractors in the construction industry who rely on formerly incarcerated workers, including the introduction of licensing and reporting requirements for these recruitment agencies.
“Body shops operate in the shade, with no accountability,” said Mike Prohaska, General Manager of Laborers’ Local 79. “
Danny Coley started working for a body shop for $ 13 an hour after he was released from prison in late 2016 with no benefits. He said he was not given personal protective equipment and was forced to pay for his own reflective safety vest with the company logo on it.
Coley cited an incident where he was told to wade through sewage without personal protective equipment or proper boots to protect him from contact with the contaminated water.
“There’s no retirement, no 401k, there’s nothing for the future, it’s a dead end,” said Coley.
Coley and other bodybuilders, current and former, who are now members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 79 and the Mason Tender Council, have campaigned to curb the body shop and give individuals real re-entry opportunities rather than exploitative ones Directing jobs that are likened to being re-sentenced to another form of prison.
“Now that I’m in the union, I don’t have to do anything negative to make a dollar,” added Coley. “It has changed my life dramatically and positively and not only financially, but also to be able to help other people with the next step in life.”