A Brooklyn landscaping company that normally spends springtime planting trees and building playgrounds has taken on a grim, new task due to the coronavirus crisis — burying the bodies of unclaimed victims on Hart Island.
J. Pizzirusso Landscaping Corp. of Bergen Beach won an emergency contract for the macabre work and will be responsible for digging and filling mass graves at the city’s official potter’s field for “as long as necessary,” City Hall spokeswoman Avery Cohen said.
Company owner Joseph Pizzirusso said he responded to a city solicitation for bids on the burial work and beat out the competition.
“This is a bit unique, I admit,” he said.
The situation has also turned a group of unemployed construction workers into novice gravediggers.
On Tuesday afternoon, a crew of 10 men who’d just finished a shift burying bodies in plain wood coffins returned by ferry to a dock on City Island in The Bronx.
One worker, who was carrying a clipboard and appeared to be the foreman, said they were all excavators from Queens-based Local 731 of the New York State Laborers’ Union and had never done that type of work before.
“We really needed this job — we were all out of work,” he said.
“This was available so we took it.”
Neither City Hall nor Pizzirusso would discuss the cost to taxpayers, with Cohen saying that it’s still “being finalized” amid the ongoing pandemic.
“The bid was competitive and was done under the city’s emergency executive order,” she said.
The contract was inked by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which last year was given jurisdiction over Hart Island.
The city’s public burial ground was formerly overseen by the Department of Correction, which normally employs inmates to inter unclaimed bodies.
The DOC, which is overseeing the burials, has said that the coronavirus pandemic increased their frequency from 25 once a week to an average 24 on each of five days a week.
On Thursday, aerial photographs showed at least forty caskets being buried in a trench wide enough to accommodate two rows of them.
Late last month, a published report suggested that Rikers Island inmates were being offered $6 an hour to bury coronavirus victims on Hart Island, but the Department of Correction later said prisoners wouldn’t be doing the work for “social distancing and safety reasons.”
Cohen said the need for contract workers also resulted from “generally less willing volunteers” from the jails, as well as “a smaller volunteer pool to begin with because the population is lower” due to bail reform.
In 2014, five current and former company employees told The Post that Pizzirusso had overcharged the city for planting trees as part of then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s “Million Trees” project — and even got paid by claiming to have planted trees that were already in the ground.
Despite the claims, Pizzirusso has raked in more than $146 million worth of city contracts since 2014, for a total $183 million since November 2004, city records show.
Pizzirusso said Tuesday that the allegations against his company were the result of a dispute between rival unions and that the city had investigated and cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Additional reporting by Julia Marsh