Bob Stackhouse of Tappan Zee Constructors, Inc, the lead steward for Teamsters Local 456, stands on the dock after helping to refuel one of the three crew boats currently working on the new Tappan Zee Bridge project at Petersen Boat Yard and Marina in Nyack May 2, 2013. The crews on the river now are among the first of thousands of union workers that will spend the next five years on the construction of the new Tappan Zee and the dismantling of the present bridge. ( Seth Harrison / The Journal News )
Bobby Stackhouse feels the growing excitement for the new Tappan Zee Bridge as he fuels the boats of the first work crews on the river.
It’s just Stackhouse and about two dozen other union workers currently on site, but they will gradually get more company as thousands of laborers join the monumental effort to build the Tappan Zee replacement in the next five years.
“This is just the beginning,” said Stackhouse, who grew up in North Tarrytown and is lead steward on the project for Teamsters and Chauffeurs Local 456. “All the trades have been starving for the last five or six years — it’s been so bad. This job is like adrenaline being tapped into you. Once it gets going, it’s going to put many people back to work.”
The $3.9 billion project to replace the Tappan Zee is expected to employ roughly 2,600 full-time construction workers each year for the next five years, according to state economic models based on the cost of the project. Some of those union members may work during certain portions of the project, while others may be employed for the duration of the project.
So far, the small team that includes Stackhouse is making early preparations such as setting up staging areas on piers and testing the river soil. As the work intensifies in the coming months, Stackhouse, 59, will manage groups of truck drivers, transport equipment for repairs and keep track of supplies.
“People who are coming to this job know it’s steady work for a while, and they’ll be OK with their bills,” he said. “Everyone is very happy out here.”
From carpenters to crane operators, workers from dozens of construction specialties will all work under the same labor agreement to complete the 3-mile, twin spans by April 2018.
The deal encompasses some 50 locals and was negotiated last year between local and state union leaders and the New York State Thruway Authority. The several-hundred-page document establishes consistent policies regarding work hours, overtime rates and holidays. The common rules will save the state some $450 million, while also providing highly skilled workers for the complex job, officials say.
Longer work weeks
Many of the unions typically work 35 hours a week, with any work beyond that paid as overtime. But under the bridge’s labor agreement, the standard work week on the project will be 40 hours, either in four 10-hour days or five eight-hour days.
The wages, compensation packages and annual raises union workers receive will vary based on trade and experience. They are standard rates for their work that were negotiated between the unions and their trade councils, and are not specific to the bridge project. Workers will also receive annual raises based on trade and experience.
For example, a fully-trained ironworker specializing in the bridge’s steel structure will receive $110 an hour in total compensation. That includes $46 in wages and $64 for health and other benefits.
Workers will receive an extra $25 every day they show up an hour before the start of their shift, to give them more than enough time to catch a bus or boat to their job site. The bonus is designed to save TZC both time and money by making sure shifts start on time, officials said.
A cap on the overtime rate is another way the state expects to save money. While some unions are paid a double-time rate for overtime, all union workers on this job will be paid at time-and-a-half.
The agreement also standardizes paid holidays for workers. Some unions receive a dozen holidays on other jobs, but will get eight on this one. The deal details how to settle disputes and handle injuries and guarantees that there will be no strikes, slowdowns or picketing by labor or lockouts by management.
Even with the compromises, the deal was worth it because it will give a pool of some 40,000 union members a chance for steady work, union leaders said. That’s important for some trades that have suffered with unemployment rates as high as 40 percent in recent years.
“What’s guaranteed is that the men on the job are from (local) building trades,” said Pete Creegan, business agent for Iron Workers Ornamental Local 580, which has about 1,000 members in Westchester and Putnam counties. “It keeps the people living in the area paying their school taxes, putting their kids through school, and keeping those communities alive. Everyone benefits.”
Safety and security
While standardized rules in project labor agreements are typical, the one for the Tappan Zee project includes stiff, and in some cases unprecedented, requirements to minimize the risk of accidents, ensure top performance and keep the site secure.
“This job … requires every worker on the job, including management, including people designing the bridge in an office miles way, to be substance tested” for drug and alcohol use, Ross Pepe, president of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley, said.
“It’s the only public works project in the state, that I know of, that has a requirement for substance testing,” Pepe said.
The drug and alcohol tests will be administered before employment, on a random basis, following accidents and for reasonable suspicion. Tarrytown-based Clarity Testing will carry out the program and perform daily urine tests on site.
Because project workers will know details about the bridge’s design and structure, workers have to undergo background checks to see whether they have criminal histories, immigration issues or financial problems that could make them vulnerable to bribes, officials said.
Those entering the work zone, whether they are top managers, daily workers or visitors, will have to go through homeland security clearance ahead of time.
These safety and security measures also lower costs for liability insurance and worker’s compensation and reduce the project’s overall price tag, they said.
A diverse workforce
Women and minority workers will get special consideration as part of the labor agreement. It requires that nearly 30 percent of the total construction hours — 22.6 percent for minorities and 6.9 percent for women — go to those groups.
Though there aren’t specific requirements for this project, union leaders said they are currently working with Helmets to Hard Hats to get military veterans on the job.
Union workers will carry out the majority of the actual construction, but the labor agreement allows up to 12 percent of the workforce to include nonunion workers.
Because public money is involved, even non-union construction workers have to be paid the prevailing wage, which is set by state law.
Most of the nonunion work on the project will be related to activities outside of construction, such as public relations and information technology.
Creegan, the ironworker union leader, said the Tappan Zee project is a special opportunity for workers to accomplish a great feat.
“They accept that challenge,” he said. “What’s a better feeling than making it happen at the end of the day?”
Tappan Zee wages and benefits
Here are projected earnings for some union workers on the Tappan Zee Bridge project. These figures are for journeymen, the most experienced workers in their trades. Apprentices used on the project will make less. The project labor agreement also calls for annual raises.
These figures are the total hourly package, which includes wages and benefits (health insurance, pension, annuity, vacation and other funds)
• Iron Workers Structural Local 40 (work on bridge’s steel structures)
$110.11 ($46 wage; $64.11 benefits)
• Operating Engineers Heavy/Highway Local 137 (crane operators rated over 100 tons)
$85.80 ($60 wage; $25.80 benefits)
• Carpenters Local 279
$68.52 ($33.48 wage; $35.04 benefits)
• Teamsters and Chaffeurs Local 456 (drivers of tri-axle trucks)
$60.19 ($38.02 wage; $22.17 benefits)
• Laborers Heavy/Highway Local 60 (concrete workers)
$54.40 ($34.55 wage; $19.85 benefits)
Sources: Tappan Zee Bridge project labor agreement and Construction Industry Council of Westchester and Hudson Valley
Written by Theresa Juva-Brown and Khurram Saeed, The Journal News (LoHud.com), 3/5/13