Neil Ascione, vice president at Fairfield, New Jersey-based general contractor RC Andersen, wants the world to know his firm's strengths, and its commitment to safety and social justice on its jobsites.
"We're very good contractors," Ascione said in an exclusive interview with Construction Dive, where he talked about the challenges of the $250 million fulfillment center project his company is building for Amazon in Windsor, Connecticut, where the discovery of an eighth noose shut down the jobsite for the second time in a week.
"Unfortunately," Ascione added, "we're not very good at dealing with the media.” The company has received a barrage of attention over the past few weeks, with outlets from The New York Times to the BBC running stories about the noose incidents.
Ascione's perspective outlines the experience of a regional contractor that takes pride in its work, but suddenly found itself thrust into the center of a mushrooming international news story about racism and social justice in America, while working for the fourth largest corporation on the planet.
Now Ascione and RC Andersen want the construction community and the world to know how seriously they are taking the incidents that were first discovered at the jobsite April 27, and have continued over the course of a month at the 3.7 million-square-foot facility.
"The world needs to know what's going on out here," said Ascione, who noted that the standard non-disclosure agreement the contractor had with Amazon had initially caused it to hesitate from commenting publicly on the incidents. But after getting consent from its client to address the situation now, Ascione said, "We've got to get our message out there."
Addressing the issue
After the first noose was discovered April 27, Ascione said RC Andersen immediately contacted the local Windsor police department to report a hate crime.
"RC Andersen regards the conduct involved here as not only offensive, but disgusting,” the company said in a prepared statement provided to Construction Dive. "As such, RC Andersen has been working aggressively with Amazon to find out who may have engaged in this conduct in order to remove them from our project, but also to prevent such outrage from ever afflicting this project again."
The firm also consulted the police about providing more security on the site, out of concern for workers. He said there are now approximately six officers on the jobsite during work hours, and at least one officer stationed there overnight.
"A symbol of hate is one thing," Ascione said. “But a violent act against one of our workers would be the absolute worst-case scenario. We cannot have anyone get hurt on our jobsite."
Toolbox talks and contract language
Since COVID-19 mitigation protocols prohibited bringing all 400 workers together for a site-wide safety standdown, the firm distributed anti-harassment literature to its crews, and ordered the approximately 70 companies working at the project to hold toolbox talks to discuss what had happened. It also stressed the zero-tolerance clauses it writes into all of its subcontracts, to make it clear that whoever hung the nooses was in breach.
"We have language in every one of our contracts that says we will not tolerate any discrimination on our jobs, and that if we see anybody commit a hateful act, we reserve the right to remove them from the jobsite," he said.
The contractor also offered an initial reward of $5,000 for information in the case, which was quickly increased to $50,000 and then $100,000. The cost is being shared by RC Andersen, Amazon, Indianapolis-based Scannell Properties and a few subcontractors on the job, Ascione said.
"The immediate thought was there's 400 people on this project, so if there's only one person committing this act, there's potentially 399 witnesses," Ascione said. "We wanted to give them the proper motivation to come forward."
Two days after the initial noose was found, five more ropes that could be construed as nooses were discovered. The FBI quickly joined the investigation, as well as Connecticut state police at the order of Gov. Ned Lamont, and the NAACP began calling for more aggressive action to root out the perpetrators.
Then on May 19, a seventh noose was found, and the site was shut down for the first time to increase security.
While there had already been cameras on site to track the progress of the project — an increasingly common practice in commercial construction — after the second incident, RC Andersen began installing additional security cameras. Ascione said there are more than 100 on the site today, in an attempt to cover as much of the project as possible.
"The challenge is that it's a 3.7 million-square-foot building, and the steel is still being erected," Ascione said. "You can't have a camera at the leading edge of the steel before more steel is installed."
An eighth noose was found at the site on May 26, and the site was shut down a second time, just a day after work had resumed and only hours ahead of a scheduled meeting between RC Andersen, Amazon and the NAACP at the site, which Ascione said the firm is now hoping to reschedule.
After the second shutdown, Amazon said it was reviewing RC Andersen, as well as Indianapolis-based developer Scannell Properties, "to ensure they are maintaining the standards expected of an Amazon project," said Kelly Nantel, director of national media relations at Amazon, in an email statement. "We will make any appropriate changes to this project, including reevaluating our partnerships, to ensure these high standards."
Ascione said that in addition to the reward money, the stoppages that have interrupted the workflow have added costs.
"In construction, starts and stops are always challenging," Ascione said. "With those challenges come an increased cost."
A focus on mental health
Out of concern for the mental health of workers, especially workers of color, Ascione said RC Andersen has given its subcontractors the option of re-assigning anyone who no longer wishes to work at the project, though he said he wasn't aware of any subs who have done so. Amazon, he said, is also offering counseling services to workers at the job.
"At the end of the day, our performance is what we will ultimately be evaluated on, so our goal is to make sure we're performing to the highest level possible."
Vice president, RC Andersen
Additionally, RC Andersen has now hired an outside counsel and former prosecutor who specializes in hate crimes to lead its own internal investigation at the site and assist law enforcement to bring whoever is responsible to account and prevent it from happening again.
Despite those efforts, the perpetrators haven't been identified, and Amazon put out its statement on Thursday saying it would re-evaluate its general contractor and developer as to whether they were maintaining its expected standards.
Asked about Amazon's re-evaluation of its work, Ascione said the firm's focus is on building its project, and the safety of its workers.
"We just need to do the best we can on site and in the construction of this project to make sure all the workers are safe," Ascione said. "At the end of the day, our performance is what we will ultimately be evaluated on, so our goal is to make sure we're performing to the highest level possible."