Additional reporting by Gabriel Poblete

On Staten Island, the waitlist for day laborers seeking free health and safety training for construction jobs is hundreds of names long. Worker centers in Queens and Brooklyn are seeing three to five times the demand for scarce training slots, far exceeding availability.

The backup for safety courses is adding yet another hurdle for recent South American immigrants, many of whom have never worked on a construction site before, striving to build lives in the city while awaiting hearings on asylum applications.

By law, laborers can’t show up at a large construction site without completing 40 hours of training, which can be met in part through OSHA training courses named for the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. For thousands who arrived this year from the Mexico border, training delays mean that on-the-books jobs will remain out of reach even after they wait the legally required 180 days for a U.S. work permit.

“Our capacity is at its limit,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Workers Justice Project, a center in Brooklyn. “We can only do two classes a month.”

Among the 25 trainees at the headquarters of Staten Island workers center La Colmena on a recent Sunday sat a new arrival from Venezuela who asked to be identified by his first name, Ronald. He’s a college graduate and data analyst who arrived with his wife and daughter at Port Authority Bus terminal by way of El Paso, Texas.

Ronald is among more than 23,000 asylum-seekers who city officials estimate have arrived from the border since April, many of them bused to New York by Texas government authorities and nonprofit organizations.

“I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received,” he said via an interpreter. “I want to use the skills I’m learning to provide for my family.” He has never worked on a construction site before, he said.

The training, required by law in New York City since 2017, teaches workers potentially life-saving safety practices on the job, as well as their basic rights, including the right to refuse to work if a site or assignment is unsafe. 

Advocates for immigrant workers say the training is an essential step for integrating new immigrants into the New York construction industry.

“We really believe it’s important to focus, whether or not they have work authorizations at all, that we make sure these workers are protected — whether it’s by the city or OSHA — and that their lives are not at risk,” said Nadia Marín Molina, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. 

A sign showing safety gear for workers at a Manhattan construction site. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Workers can pay for their own 40 hours of training, at a cost of about $400 to $650. But free courses are much harder to come by. The city department of Small Business Services has given La Colmena and two other groups about $2.4 million since 2020 under the federal Workforce Investment Act to help pay for the trainings, city contract records show. The City Council is spending $1.1 million this year to back sessions at eight groups.

‘We Have to Step Up’

The OSHA training became mandatory in 2018 for the majority of construction workers seeking jobs in the city, following City Council passage of Local Law 196.

Most workers surveyed by the Center for Migration Studies of New York for a study published in May said their employer had checked for the Site Safety Training card, which workers receive upon completion of the training.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who was the primary sponsor of Local Law 196 when he was a Council member from Brooklyn, told THE CITY that his office was unaware of the surge in demand for the OSHA trainings — and vowed to get additional city funding.

“I’m not surprised, now that I hear about it. It makes sense that people were trying to get work,” Williams said.

“Like with most things, the influx of this amount of people has caught some folks off guard in many regards — from schooling to housing and, not surprisingly, to this type of education that’s needed, OSHA training,” he added. “Now that we’re starting to see some of the trickle-down effects of a crisis, we have to step up.”

La Colmena offers two cycles of training each month, with a maximum capacity of 50. 

The current waitlist is more than 300 names long, the vast majority of them asylum-seekers from Venezuela living in the city’s emergency shelters. 

Twenty to 30 people inquire about the OSHA training every day — so many that the organization is partnering with Community Health Action of Staten Island to create a new cycle of training that caters specifically to asylum-seekers. The training will include an orientation that helps asylum-seekers adapt to their new environment and is scheduled to begin at the end of this month.

At the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn, as many as 60 people a day have been inquiring about courses, Guallpa said, about five times as many as usual. The center has four people on staff facilitating training. 

And at New Immigrant Community Empowerment, in Queens, about 300 people per month have been requesting spots in the OSHA certification classes since the summer. That’s approximately triple the demand they usually see each month, said Angelica Novoa, the organization’s director of training. 

“There is a lot more demand now,” said Félix Guzmán, who has taught OSHA courses with La Colmena for more than a decade. “People are asking a lot of questions about how to be safe on work sites and also about their rights.” 

The workers seeking to join the construction industry now are coming in at a disadvantage, because fewer jobs tend to be available as the weather gets colder. 

As with many immigrants, even those who do enter the workforce are likely to find non-union work, where they will be at greater risk of exploitation and of suffering severe injuries or even death on the job.

“These workers are likely to end up working in small construction sites where there’s very little oversight, where it is non-union, so there’s no representation, training or protection for those workers,” Marín Molina said. Often the employers pay below the minimum wage and don’t provide basic equipment such as hard hats and harnesses, she ad

A September audit by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found that the city Department of Buildings is not adequately enforcing its oversight, inspection and enforcement powers to prevent construction-related injuries and fatalities.

“The Department of Buildings promotes the safety of all people that build, work, and live in New York City by regulating the lawful use of over one million buildings and construction sites across the five Boroughs,” then-DOB commissioner Eric Ulrich wrote in response to the audit’s findings. “We therefore agree that it is critical that site safety personnel, contractors, and owners treat their responsibility for ensuing construction site safety with the utmost seriousness and that they work with the Department of Buildings to instill a culture of safety at construction sites.”

On the Job and at Risk

Local lawmakers told THE CITY they were exploring how to use discretionary funds to help expand access to free training. Among them are Brooklyn Democratic Councilmembers Jennifer Gutiérrez and Lincoln Restler, along with Carmen de la Rosa (D-Manhattan), who chairs Council’s labor committee.

De la Rosa called suggestions that the new immigrants are a burden on New York City “a cheap Republican talking point.”

“I’ve met asylum seekers in my district and the first thing out of their mouth was like, ‘I want to be useful. What can I do?’ And that story is not often told. The story that is told is the drain on the economy,” she added. “But the American Dream has been promised for centuries to immigrants that land here. It should be something that we are all able to enjoy.”

Gutiérrez noted that calls to increase funding and resources for the training predate the arrival of the asylum-seekers.

“These are jobs that no one else is filling. And so that’s the reality we’re talking about,” she said. “They are here and they want to build that economy and help make that industry more robust, and it’s our job to make sure that it’s safe and that they’re doing it the best way.”

While waiting for spots in the required training classes to open up, some workers are toiling in construction already, Guallpa said, working odd jobs under the table without knowledge of their rights or basic safety hazards.

“The stories you hear during the courses — oh my God,” she said. “They do it because they are newly arrived immigrants who are unemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the country. So a lot of them end up taking anything.”

Statewide efforts to crack down on nefarious employers have languished. A state bill known as Carlos’ Law — named after late construction worker Carlos Moncoya, who died on the job in Manhattan in 2015 — that would drastically increase fines for employers who flout safety laws was approved by both chambers of the legislature but remains unsigned by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

One union leader warned of a potentially dire situation.

“Hopefully there are some people that are coming from Venezuela who have skills, and that’ll help them get employment,” said James Mahoney, president of the NYS Ironworkers District Council. “But there are a lot of really bad employers out there that can’t wait to get their hands on them, and then not pay them or put them in dangerous situations, or try and really keep them under their thumb.”

“It’s dangerous for them,” he added. “It literally is a dangerous situation right now.”