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‘It’s about quality work’: Skilled trade laborers in charge of maintaining and repairing NY’s municipal buildings are city’s unsung, often unseen heroes

2019-09-02

A plumber prepares pipes for a job at the Shops. (Wes Parnell/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

When a two-alarm fire broke out in the basement of New York’s busiest courthouse in March 2010, frying the electrical system and shutting the smoke-filled building down for four days, it wasn’t just city firefighters, cops and court officers who were on the scene.

It was another team of elite civil servants that was dispatched to assess the damage and get Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre St. up and running again — the skilled trade laborers who work out of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ Brooklyn warehouse known as the “Shops” and are tasked with keeping the city’s courthouses, borough halls and other municipal buildings maintained, repaired and safe.

The exterior of the "Shops" on Kent Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The exterior of the "Shops" on Kent Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Wes Parnell/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

“This is the crew that works day-in and day-out to make sure that [city buildings] are operational and functional," said DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo of the carpenters, plumbers, masons, painters, electricians and sheet metal workers who toil in the nondescript, two-story structure nestled under the Williamsburg Bridge on Kent Ave. steps from the East River.

“They’re often unseen. They come in and do the work, sometimes off-hours and on weekends," Camilo added. "But they’re working really hard to make sure [the buildings] are functioning for over 300,000 city workers who show up for work every day in a safe, comfortable place.”

While the city contracts around 9,000 outside vendors to perform various jobs as needed, there are only about 95 select DCAS tradesmen and women who maintain 55 municipal buildings across the five boroughs, including City Hall.

It’s a huge responsibility for such a relatively small staff, and it gives the Shops workers a strong sense of civic pride — and motivates them to do their best at all times.

“Here, it’s about quality work," said Pasquale Picaro, 60, a painter who has worked at the Shops for 13 years. "They’re not looking for a fast job, they’re looking for a good job.”

Pasquale Picaro, a painter, has worked in the Shops for 13 years.
Pasquale Picaro, a painter, has worked in the Shops for 13 years. (Wes Parnell/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

Joe Jenson, 54, a plumber who has been at the Shops for 16 years, is typical of how most of the employees approach their work: with humility and confidence.

“We basically just do our job,” Jenson said. “On a daily basis it’s doing good work to keep our buildings in service. Whatever it takes, we do it ... We are professionals, and that’s what we’re supposed to be.”

But making a good living at a skilled trade seems to be turning into an old-school vocation. A growing number of high schoolers across the country are choosing college over learning a trade, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and Camilo said she sees a shortage of quality workers applying for DCAS trade positions.

“We are constantly looking for qualified people to work for the city,” she said. “It offers an incredibly stable, good paying career. So if you’re not on the college path, the city offers amazing opportunity for long-standing, well-paying middle-class jobs. It’s not just a job, it’s a career.”

Mike Pace, 54 runs a piece of sheet metal through a machine in the sheet metal workshop in the Shops.
Mike Pace, 54 runs a piece of sheet metal through a machine in the sheet metal workshop in the Shops. (Wes Parnell/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

Richard Ramirez, 59, a sheet metal worker who has worked at the Shops for five years, said he would like to see more young people coming into trade positions.

“The trades are dying, no one wants to get their hands dirty," Ramirez said. “But I make $50 an hour and I don’t have $100,000 in college debt. You don’t need to go to college (and) there is a lot to learn in this field. All that’s required is a high school diploma.

"It is,” he added, "a beautiful way to make a living.”