Some crane operators and related trades in New York City make upwards of $500,000 a year in pay, overtime and benefits, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, which represents the construction industry.
The group says that some of the workers pulling down the biggest salaries at the World Trade Center aren't even operating equipment. It says about 50 workers are in unnecessary positions, such as relief crane operators, mandated by the union contract.
"If you want to be paid for seven or eight hours, you should work for seven or eight hours," said Steve Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board.
Officials for the two operating engineer unions, which represent 6,600 crane operators, maintenance engineers and excavators in New York, didn't return calls seeking comment.
Operating engineers are at center stage as the construction industry tries to hammer out new agreements with some of the city's most important unions. About two dozen contracts expire June 30.
The operating engineers represent just a small fraction of the 101,000 construction workers in the city, but they play an outsize role. The men operating the big cranes must lift virtually every beam in a skyscraper, and they thus help control the pace of work for an entire site. Running a crane takes a lot of skill. If a crane operator makes a mistake and drops a load, workers can die.
Jeffrey Grabelsky, director of Cornell University's construction industry program, said that there may be antiquated work rules for operating engineers that need addressing. But he adds, "These workers are incredibly skilled, have enormous responsibility and make an invaluable contribution to one of the most important industries in the New York City economy."
Non-union workers make up about 40% of the construction work force, up from 10% during the 1970s.
Not so for crane operators, who are union members.
Crane operators are currently licensed by the city. The operating engineers union controls much of the process because training requires supervision under licensed operators, and most of them are unionized.
That could change. The city says it intends to begin using a national test for crane operators. That could open up the market for crane operators in other cities to work in New York. The city hasn't said when it will make the switch.
A crane operator in New York City earns $82.15 an hour in base pay and benefits, according to the Engineer News-Record, a trade publication. That's well's above the $66 an hour he would earn in Chicago or the $39 an hour in Washington, D.C.
But the real reason New York crane operators and other operating engineers earn such big salaries is overtime and benefits. A relief crane operator working 56 hours of overtime per week for 52 weeks will earn $332,667 in overtime and $159,053 in overtime benefits at the World Trade Center. As a worker's salaries go up, so do the amounts employers must kick in for annuities and pensions.
The Real Estate Board there are currently 14 unproductive workers at the World Trade Center earning $400,000 or more in regular pay and overtime.
The World Trade Center has 16-hour work days, said Hope Cohen, associate director for the Center for Urban Innovation at the Regional Plan Association."They add up really fast."
Work rules at the World Trade Center require that every crane operator be accompanied by a relief crane operator and an oiler—a person that starts up the crane—for the entire time a crane is operating.
To be sure, many workers don't work for 52 weeks works straight while logging 56 hour of overtime a week. But many workers are on site close to year round while working 16-hour days.
"Our clients are telling us that union construction has the best quality, is the most efficient, is the most reliable, is the most productive, but is the most expensive," said Jay Badame, president and a chief operating officer with Tishman Construction Corp., while speaking earlier this month at an event on construction costs. Tishman is one of the construction manager at the World Trade Center.
The 30% premium that builders pay for union labor needs to be cut to 10%, Mr. Badame said. The city's construction unions should pressure those unions with unproductive work rules to make changes, which would cut the cost of organized labor, he said. "The unions should police themselves," he added.
Correction & Amplification
A national exam will be required to obtain a license to operate certain construction cranes in New York City. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the national exam would replace city licensing.