It has been obvious for decades that Albany has been in the pocket of special interests, but a new report makes the point so clearly that only an out-and-out acknowledgment of the fact by state leaders can explain continued support of Labor Law 240, commonly known as the Scaffold Law.
The report, by SUNY’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in association with Cornell University, not only knocks the supports out from under the Scaffold Law, but it shows that New York’s law, purported by its supporters to protect construction workers, has actually put them at higher risk of injury. There can be no defense now for maintaining this relic of the 19th century. The report was funded by the New York Civil Justice Institute, an opponent of the law, but no one has challenged the reputations of Cornell or the Rockefeller Institute.
The law was enacted in 1885 in response to careless safety precautions within the construction industry. It required then – and still does today – that when any worker falls from a height, the contractor or property owner is legally deemed to be at fault, allowing for no defense in a court case. It’s only a matter of how much to pay the injured worker and, of course, his attorney.
Today, around the world, only New York maintains such a law. No other state and no other country has a similar statute and for two good reasons: In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration closely oversees workplace safety, rendering the law unnecessary, and it flies in the face of any decent conception of justice. In no other matter is an accused person or entity denied the fundamental right of mounting a defense in court.
But, as the report shows, it’s not just that the law is unnecessary, it is actually precipitating a higher rate of injury among workers.
The study showed that the sectors of the state construction industry affected by the Scaffold Law produced a “significantly higher worker non-fatal injury rate” than those in other sectors. Additionally, a comparison between New York and Illinois, which dumped its version of the law in 1995, showed that the rate of relevant injuries in Illinois was higher than New York before repeal, but fell to rates lower than New York after repeal.
Even some of the unions that the law is purportedly meant to protect understand that it is a dead weight on their incomes. Because of the absolute liability law, insurance rates for construction are significantly higher in New York than in other states, depressing the market.
Indeed, the report makes a compelling case that abolition of the law could produce “up to roughly $150 million net gain in the total value of output in the economy,” as well as an increase of 12,000 jobs.
Speaking to The Buffalo News more than 10 years ago, one labor leader was blunt about the law. “These jobs are so much safer” than in previous years, Michael Fitzpatrick said. “By and large, contractors are working with the safety of people in mind.”
So what, then, is the defense for maintaining an expensive law that depletes workers’ incomes and renders them less safe? The only people who benefit are the personal injury lawyers for whom the Scaffold Law produces an automatic payday, and the trial lawyers’ lobby is a powerful influence on the Legislature. But surely even it can’t persuade lawmakers to maintain a law that is not only of no use, but which is actually dangerous.
It’s time to repeal this law and get in line with the rest of the country. It drives up costs, depresses the industry and is unsafe. Throw it out.