Recently, we devoted one of our radio commentaries to how New York’s outdated Scaffold Law adds hundreds of millions of dollars to building projects in that state. It’s a unique “under the radar” issue even though it affects everyone in that state from taxpayers to school children, so it’s worth a more in-depth look.
In a column in the New York Daily News, Bill Hammond reported last year that this law would likely add hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary costs to the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge and called it a “19th Century throwback that exists in no other state – sapping the economy and hitting taxpayers in the wallet.”
Despite how much taxpayer money is wasted because of this law each year, it’s safe to say that most people don’t know about it. I only became aware of it after hearing how much it costs New York City’s school system. According to a broad-based coalition now fighting to repeal the Scaffold Law, the “New York City School Construction Authority recently estimated the Scaffold Law wastes the equivalent of three new brand new schools in taxpayer dollars each year.”
So much for flying under the radar. Adding millions of dollars to the cost of a bridge project is certainly bad, but when you hurt school kids, you’re going to start attracting attention.
At one time, many states had Scaffold Laws. For years, these laws provided the only way that workers who fell or who were injured some other way while working on scaffolding could receive compensation for their injuries. However, as federal workers compensation laws were enacted to provide benefits to injured workers, states repealed their outdated scaffold laws because they were redundant. Except New York.
Today, New York’s one-of-a-kind scaffold law requires builders and contractors to buy not only workers compensation insurance, but special insurance to protect against lawsuits under the outdated scaffold law. It’s essentially double insurance for the same thing, and it’s why Illinois was one of the last states to repeal its Scaffold Law in 1995.
The New York State Trial Lawyers Association is one of the primary opponents of repealing this dinosaur law claiming that the lawsuits they file are needed to keep workers safe. However, in Illinois, construction site safety actually improved dramatically after the Scaffold Law was repealed. According to ScaffoldLaw.org:
“Between 1995 and 2000, construction site fatalities declined as a percentage of construction workers by 30%. Injuries plummeted by 54%.” Furthermore, “Despite having the Scaffold Law, the rate of construction injuries in New York exceeds that of other states with major metropolitan areas such as Florida, Texas, and Illinois.”
The trial lawyers and their allies have been able to keep this antiquated law on the books in part because so few people are aware of what a tremendous burden it has become on taxpayers. It’s time to ratchet up debate on this costly problem and bring New York liability laws into the 21st century.