Why Was There a Giant Rat on 14th Street Today? And a Coffin Outside of Beth Israel?

ratNatalie Rinn

Earlier this afternoon, Carlos Severino, a member of the Laborers Local 78, stood near an oversized, money-grabbing, cigar-chomping rat that had been conspicuously inflated in front of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary on East 14th Street. The labor union, which specializes in the removal of asbestos, lead and other hazardous materials, is protesting Continuum Health Partners, which operates the Infirmary along with three other hospitals. Mr. Severino held up flyers complaining that an “irresponsible” private company was performing “deadly asbestos removal” at one of the company’s facilities, St. Luke’s Hospital on the Upper West Side.

Richard Weiss, a spokesperson for the union, said the protests began a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Severino said they would continue for some time: “We’ll stay another week, a month, until they do what they’re supposed to do.”

In addition to the rat on East 14th Street, members of Laborers Local 78 are displaying an open coffin in front of Beth Israel Hospital on First Avenue, just a couple of blocks north – a move that Jim Mandler, a spokesperson for Continuum, said was unacceptable.

“The union’s tactics, in particular the tactic of using an open coffin to protest, has certainly been extremely unsettling to our patients and their visitors, and we view it as a very disrespectful approach,” he said. “We are a unionized organization and we have respect for organized workers but displaying a coffin in front of a hospital goes above and beyond what would be considered appropriate protesting tactics.”

New York Insulation, the private company hired by Continuum to remove the asbestos, has been disqualified by the New York School Construction Authority for failing to pay its workers proper wages in accordance with Prevailing Wage laws. The New York City Housing Authority confirmed that it, too, does not use the company. “I believe there is an ongoing investigation,” a representative said.

Mr. Mandler said he wasn’t aware of the company’s track record. “The real estate people handle all the contracting work,” he said, “and I’m not aware of whether they did or did not know of past work.”

Mr. Weiss said Laborers Local 78 has been protesting Continuum for years, and first brought a lawsuit against it, along with several other private construction companies, in 2008 for wage violations.

“You’re not going to get the good workers if you’re not paying the right wages,” he said. “We want these hospitals to remove them from the job and hire a responsible, licensed contractor that uses the properly trained workers, and pays the proper wages and benefits, and lives up to the safety standards that are expected. They are the wrong workers to be doing the job.”

Meanwhile, Continuum Health Partners is standing by its decision.

Mr. Mandler said the company had worked with New York Insulation before at Beth Israel. “We are absolutely confident that the company that we’ve hired for this job will do an excellent job in removing the asbestos that needs to be removed from the facility, safely and efficiently,” he said.

Expect to see a coffin in front of Beth Israel again soon. “He’ll probably be back with it tomorrow,” Mr. Severino said of the prop’s keeper, with a disarming smile.