January 11, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Packed with double-parked cars and half-crocked patrons, Steinway Street in Queens on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, 2015, was a Traffic Enforcement Agent’s worst nightmare – one that Joseph Flores, 39, and his partner almost didn’t survive unscathed.
The married Bronx father of two has been a Traffic Enforcement Agent [TEA] for almost a decade, but last fall, he was assigned to the streets surrounding the 114th Police Precinct and transformed into a “Nighthawk” — a Traffic Enforcement Agent who works 10-hour overnight shifts, usually from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., four days a week.
“I know that I’m more at risk of things happening to me even though I have a partner,” Flores told LaborPress this week.
Flores knew he and his partner where in for trouble that last weekend in December, as soon as they attempted to start issuing summonses for all of the illegally-parked cars, and a jittery crowd emerging from the Steinway Street bars and nightclubs began to gather.
“You basically had the whole avenue double-parked from left to right,” Flores said. “We asked who owned one of the cars and nobody knew. But then, the motorist came out pissed off. You could smell the alcohol on him, and even from people on the sidewalk. We didn’t feel safe at the moment.”
Working the overnight shift as a Nighthawk not only plays havoc with personal sleep schedules, it also poses TEAs with an increased threat of bodily harm from irate motorists often embolden under the cover of darkness. The city knows this, and that’s why Nighthawks like Flores don’t work alone.
Last October, a TEA Nighthawk named named Jose Fismael, 30, was knocked out of action for roughly two months after a hit-and-run driver struck him on Washington Avenue between Myrtle and Park avenues in Brooklyn. Fismael suffered injuries to his head and neck.
“I’ve walked away from a few situations that could have led to who knows what,” Flores said. “It’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
Flores and his partner new they had a choice that night on Steinway Street: keep writing tickets, or get out of there and welcome 2016 in one piece. Those chose the latter.
“You’re dealing with someone how is already angry about getting a ticket, and now they’re intoxicated,” Flores said. “That crowd was getting closer and closer to our vehicle.”
Aside from a slight 10-percent night differential, Traffic Enforcement Agents who work the graveyard shift earn the same salary as those who work during the day. The base salary for all TEAs starting out is less than $30,000 a year — $29,217 to be exact. That figure creeps up to $33,600 after two years.
TEAs who often serve as the first responders in emergency situations, in addition to directing traffic and keeping city streets clear regardless of environmental conditions, have waited six years for a contract that actually pays a living wage.
Union president Syed Rahim says that many agents pursue Nighthawk hours, at least for a little while, due to a myriad of reasons — all of them economic.
“Agents work as Nighthawks because they can’t afford the high price of child care on a TEA’s salary, or they need a separate job to support themselves because of high rent,” the CWA Local 1182 leader says. “Other agents work as Nighthawks so they can go to college during the day and earn 60 credits to become police officers.”
Any agent, regardless of level, may be required to work nights, weekends and holidays, according to the NYPD.
Flores has had his fill squaring off against drunken crowds as a Nighthawk, and looks forward to a time when he can return to daytime duties.
“I don’t want to work nights,” Flores said. “At this point [in my career], if I’m going to work Nighthawks, I should be working closer to my home.”