In response to complaints about construction workers not getting paid properly at New York City development sites, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal introduced legislation Thursday calling for the creation of an ombudsman position at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to handle such allegations.

Rosenthal, who chairs the Contracts Committee, told City & State that she was moved by workers who testified before her committee that they endured racism, sexism and wage theft while working on projects under HPD’s purview.

The councilwoman said HPD appeared to have reservations about singling out employers who engage in such practices, and the legislation aims to rectify that. The bill stipulates that substantiated complaints should be factored into whether or not a company makes it onto the city’s preferred contractor list. It also calls for the ombudsman to submit monthly reports to HPD’s commissioner and release online an annual summary of its work, including details of substantiated complaints.

The ombudsman would be responsible for addressing allegations of wage theft, labor violations and shoddy construction.

“It’s reprehensible, and the city can’t be a part of it,” Rosenthal said. “The same way that they’re cutting corners on their staff and paying, they’re cutting corners on materials. … At the end of the day, the city gets a crummy product as well.”

HPD had not been aware of the bill when City & State reached out for comment, and a spokesperson said the department would review the details as soon as it is introduced.

Rosenthal said she would prefer that the ombudsman either be a lawyer or hire a lawyer and work in tandem with the city’s Department of Investigation. But she expects the details of this position to be worked out in coming discussions.

Leaders of the Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York, the Construction and General Building Laborer’s Local 79, Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborer’s Local 78 and 100 Black Construction Workers praised the legislation in a press release. 

The unions said the legislation builds on a law currently being contested in court by the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio’s and his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s administrations have not upheld a law requiring HPD to report payroll information for the developers, contractors and subcontractors it works with.

“The passage of this legislation will only strengthen our position in court,” Pat Purcell, executive director of the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Education & Cooperation Trust, said in a statement. “Our goal is [to] require greater\ transparency and accountability – a goal that should be shared by the administration. We urge them to drop their lawsuit and deliver a better affordable housing market for New York City."

The New York State Association for Affordable Housing, which represents affordable housing developers, declined to comment since the organization has yet to review the legislation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from Pat Purcell of the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Education & Cooperation Trust.