Katy Contreras is in her coveralls, boots, respirator and gloves before 7 a.m. each shift. She’s on asbestos removal duty at a construction site in Chelsea, where she wields an ax for demolition work and then removes and cleans up the toxic material, taking care to hose down the area throughout the day to prevent dust and debris from spreading. 

It’s only her second month on the job, the first full-time one she’s had since arriving in New York from her native Ecuador in October. A high school literature teacher in her home country, she didn’t imagine ever working construction but she needed work, and pay for certified asbestos handlers in New York starts at about $22 hourly for apprentices.

“It's hard, tiring work, especially now that the heat is getting awful, but I enjoy it,” Contreras, 43, said during a recent lunch break. “I learn something new every day, and I get better and stronger.”

She is one of the scores of migrant women who have carved out spaces for themselves in the male-dominated field amid a shortage of housekeeping, nannying and other jobs that have traditionally been the entry point for immigrant women.

The surge in women seeking construction jobs has coincided with the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants from the southern border in the last two years, local organizers say.

Katy Contreras poses for a photo after working at a construction site.
Katy Contreras migrated from Ecuador in October and recently became certified in asbestos removal. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

Some worker centers have seen such high demand from women signing up for the free monthly occupational safety training known as OSHA-30, one of the certifications required to work on any construction site in New York, that two organizations opened regular, separate courses for female students only.

At the Workers Justice Project, a Brooklyn-based workers’ center, nearly 2,500 women are on the waitlist for 40 monthly spots for their women-only training. Two-thirds of them have been in the U.S. for a year or less, the vast majority of them from Venezuela and Ecuador, according to the organization.

Women are finding jobs in all aspects of construction work, from flaggers to cleanup to carpentry and demolition. They’re finding work with contractors and toiling the city’s different paradas, pick-ups spots for work-a-day laborers and handypersons.

“The change is visible, it is incredible and it is real,” said Modesta Toribio, an organizer at Make the Road New York who has been organizing immigrant laborers for nearly a decade and a half.

“The increase of women’s labor in the construction sector has been unbelievable,” she added. “And they’re up for anything.”

‘Feminist Revolution’

On a recent Saturday, several dozen women packed into Workers Justice Project’s small storefront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the third of four days of OSHA-30 training. They followed along with the facilitator by reading from a 500-plus-page Spanish-language textbook with chapters such as “What is a scaffold?” and “Who qualifies as a competent person?”

The women were arranged in groups they self-titled with names like “Feminist revolution” and “Freedom,” the foldout card tables littered with notebooks and loose-leaf paper, half-empty coffee cups and handbags.

The wait list for the Workers Justice Project’s monthly women’s-only OSHA 30 course in Williamsburg was nearly 2,500 names long.
The wait list for the Workers Justice Project’s monthly women’s-only OSHA-30 course in Williamsburg is nearly 2,500 names long. Credit: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Many of the women working or aspiring to work in construction, with its comparatively high pay, have other jobs, including restaurant positions, nannying and house cleaning. Construction, with its early hours, lets them juggle jobs but also pick up their children after school, workers said. And in an industry where in New York 39% of workers identify as Hispanic or Latino, language is not a barrier for entry.

Latino workers in New York are at heightened risk of death on the job. But women breaking into what still is a male-dominated industry face unique challenges. Many report experiencing sexual harassment and discrimination, and in response some workers centers have emphasized training women on their civil rights in the workplace.

“Most of the harassment cases we see are of women who say their supervisor conditioned their employment on agreeing to go on a date with them,” said Toribio.

While some job sites have begun to accommodate women, providing separate port-a-potties and changing areas, most have not, leaving women exposed to additional harassment, said María Chávez, a 28-year-old drywall laborer.

Chávez said men whistle and catcall her and other women on the job. And while she has no problem dishing it back, she hesitates to bring matters to her supervisors out of fear of retaliation.

“A lot of bosses don’t like hiring women exactly because of this, because there’s always problems between men and women with harassment — but it’s always the women who lose,” she said. “The men always get ahead, and the women get cut loose. I’m just trying to do my job.”

Contreras said she tries to ignore unwanted comments from some of her male coworkers, including teasing about whether she has crushes on anyone on the job.

In response to the popularity of its women-only monthly OSHA-30 training, the Workers Justice Project in January began offering leadership training for women, emphasizing their role in the labor movement and teaching them how to fight back against workplace and pay discrimination.

Many women are paid less for performing the same job as their male counterparts, and find that “career opportunities are very limited to them, and not based on performance or hard work,” said Ligia Guallpa, the group’s executive director. “It’s harder for women to be taken seriously and to prove they can do these jobs.”

‘Nothing Is Impossible’

Other local workers centers have also seen a noticeable increase in the number of women enrolled in occupational safety training.

Just four years ago, about 10% of Make the Road’s OSHA-30 trainees were women, and no women were enrolled for the training at La Colmena, a workers’ center on Staten Island. Today, women constitute about 40% of the people enrolled in their safety courses.

A construction worker helps with pedestrian safety along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
A construction worker helps with pedestrian safety along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, May 28, 2024. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

Women are also signing up in previously unseen numbers for site-safety training and specialized certifications, like training for “flaggers” and using scaffolding, labor leaders told THE CITY. Organizers and facilitators said the majority of women seeking employment in the construction sector are recent arrivals from Central and South America.

Many, like Contreras, landed in the construction sector after trying and failing to find steady work as nannies and house cleaners. Others sought construction as their first choice, after learning about it from other women already on the job.

“I see women coming in in their pink vests, and I think it’s a beautiful thing, because it’s really changing the construction industry,” Yesenia Mata, executive director of La Colmena, said. “And now women are owning this space.”

Construction work has become so popular that some women are making career changes. Aura Cruz recently completed her OSHA-30 training after 18 years working as a restaurant cook. She is currently waiting for her card to arrive and eventually wants to become certified as a plumber.

Construction pays better, she told THE CITY, and late-night restaurant shifts are hard on working parents like herself. She had never considered getting into construction until one day when she was comparing her salary with a friend who had recently started working in the trades — and who turned out to be earning twice as much per week as she earned in the restaurant.

“Nothing’s impossible in this life,” the mother of two said. “If men can do it, then so can women.”