Only in New York: The Incredible Case of the $400,000-a-Year Hard Hat

updated 07/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 01:00AM

George Morrison insists he makes his money the old-fashioned way. There are those who disagree. Last year, as a New York City construction worker, he pulled down no less than $419,819 in wages, benefits and consulting fees. Morrison, 44, amassed that prodigious sum working as a master mechanic on the $1.5 billion World Financial Center in Manhattan. Of course he had to put in some pretty long hours. His basic pay came to about $47,000 a year, but Morrison claimed a further $259,111 in overtime. The day just wasn't long enough for all the work Morrison had to do. In a typical 24-hour period, he put in a regular eight-hour day, then claimed 18½ hours overtime.

Morrison's secret is a jackpot clause in a collective-bargaining agreement negotiated by his union, the International Union of Operating Engineers. Unique to New York, the clause provides that whenever any member of their union is working, Morrison and other supervisors automatically go on the clock. New York's highest-paid hard hat explained some of the contract's finer points earlier this month to a New York State commission investigating featherbedding in the construction industry. Asked how he was able to supervise around the clock, Morrison conceded that he was not always physically present at the construction site while working but was "on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Sometimes on long-distance call, as it turns out. Investigators said he received $11,373 while on a week's vacation in Acapulco last January. That sum was "a little bonus, a show of appreciation" from the construction company, he explained, as was the pay he'd received on prior vacations.

"It's hard to believe any fuss was made," says Irving Anolik, Morrison's attorney. "If he were an executive, the company would have paid him a straight salary of $500,000, and nobody would have blinked an eye. The president of the United States takes calls at his vacation home all the time."

Why is a powerful outfit like Olympia & York, North America's largest office-development firm, ready to pay so high a price for labor peace on its site? "Basically, it comes down to, 'What the hell difference does it make? We'll pass on the cost,' " says Edward A. McDonald, head of the U.S. Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in New York's eastern district.

Nor is there necessarily any illegality involved. Says McDonald, "It's a fine line between what's legitimate and what's extortionate. It can be legitimate even if it's ridiculous."

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