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Heads of NYC Unions React to Growing Coronavirus Crisis

March 21, 2020

By Naeisha Rose

Striking workers took this bus to Leshinsky's home.
“I think the mayor and the governor are doing what they can do with the tools they have been given by the federal government — which was asleep at the beginning of this thing,” — ATU Local 1181 President Mike Cordiello.

New York, NY – As workers from various professional backgrounds throughout New York City try to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, union leaders are stepping up to do whatever they can to protect them and stay abreast of their needs — despite the federal government’s initial response to the crisis. 

“I don’t think Mayor Bill de Blasio was honest from the beginning about not having enough supplies,” said Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd, a representative of approximately 23,000 municipal workers. “City workers, including those in hospitals, didn’t have the proper equipment — masks, gloves and the hand sanitizers — but we were told to go out there and do a job.”

On March 19, de Blasio tweeted that there will be a shortage of ventilators and reached out to tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, saying the Big Apple “will need thousands over the next few weeks.” 

“The crisis is upon us and the stock is non-existent,” said Floyd. “The workers are going in and putting their lives at risks trying to perform their duties.”

So far, four members of Local 237 working in School Safety and the Housing Department have contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus.. 

Floyd is demanding more training and equipment for city workers who still must work during the crisis. 

Members of the American Guild of Musical Artists [AGMA] are also struggling, according to Len Egert, national executive director of the union.

On Thursday, the Metropolitan Opera, one of the largest performing arts center in the country, laid off its employees. 

“Our members are performing artists, but across the country and here in New York City, the venues are closing; the performances are being cancelled In some cases they have been postponed — but we are not even sure if they will be able to perform in future dates,” said Egert. “Everyone is going through hard times, but for performing artists, singers, dancers and the others that we represent — they don’t get paid unless they perform.”

While the full-time employees may get benefits, freelance and contract performers may not even qualify for unemployment benefits, according to Egert. 

“If you were contracted to perform in four or five performances, but they have been cancelled, now you are not an employee of the Metropolitan Opera, technically speaking, and you can’t apply for unemployment benefits, said Egert. “We are working on legislation that will give relief to those sections of our membership.” 

Since New York City is on lockdown, performers can’t obtain work from elsewhere to make ends meet.

“They can’t do side gigs because nothing is going on,” Egert said. “At the Metropolitan Opera alone, there were hundreds of per-performance artists who only get paid if they performed — unlike full-time chorus members that are considered more like employees and are eligible for unemployment or other benefits with the company.”

There are approximately 300 hundred AGMA members that worked at the Metropolitan Opera and approximately 100 at the New York Ballet. 

The Met season was initially supposed to end mid-May. According to Egert, however, no one is sure if they will be hired back on for the next season, which starts in September, since the pre-production work to put on the show would require workers to come back in late July.

Stagehands, stage directors and stage managers are also impacted by this month’s cancellations, as well as the ones expected for next month. More than 7,000 AGMA members could be impacted in the coming days, weeks and months if there are more cancellations.

As the virus continues to spread across the country, AGMA is lifting its cap on relief grants from $1,000 to $2,000. 

Egert does not envy de Blasio’s position in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Everything keeps changing hour by hour,” Egert said. “We recognize that there need to be steps to take with social distancing — but I hope that local, state and federal representatives come together for those who need it.”

AGMA is lobbying with other artists’ unions to convince the federal government to broaden unemployment protections to include contracted workers.

“We are looking for direct emergency funding for those who are going to be in tough financial straits,” said Egert. 

Mike Cordiello, president of school bus union ATU Local 1181, has two divisions that are still working, but some of his remaining workers are in a similar position to those of AGMA. 

“The whole school system is closed, so the only ones working are my MTA contractors and the Paratransit Division,” Cordiello said. “Most of our school districts are going to be paying their people — but the privates will have to go on unemployment.”

School bus workers and attendants that work for public bus companies can expect 85-percent of their pay, but those that work for private bus companies are not as fortunate, according to Cordiello, who represents 15,000 members with 20 different contracts. 

Cordiello believes that the federal government has failed New York and made it harder for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to do their jobs. 

“I think the mayor and the governor are doing what they can do with the tools they have been given by the federal government — which was asleep at the beginning of this thing,” said Cordiello. “Cuomo has shown real leadership and so has de Blasio — they are doing a terrific job.”

Cordiello has no idea how long most of his members can survive without work.

“Fortunately, the majority of the medical and the pension are intact, but there are too many unanswered questions,” Cordiello said.

Earlier this year, Cordiello was working on reliant contracts for some of the workers, but now he has to redirect his focus. 

“If we call a strike, but they close the schools, what am I striking?” he added. “It’s impacted our ability to resolve that contract.”

Cordiello hopes that everyone remains united during the pandemic — because there is no telling how long it will go on for.

Members of DC 37 Local 436, a public health nurses and epidemiologist union, have fared better in the crisis, but are have been working non-stop, according to the local’s President Judith Arroyo. 

“As far as my folks are concerned, the public health nurses and the public health epidemiologists, the city is handling it,” Arroyo said. “They are doing the work, they are getting their equipment, they are getting their assignments and they are being kept up-to-date on what they are needed for and where they are going to be sent.”

The medical professionals in Arroyo’s union are mostly responsible for swabbing patients, and unlike other members of other medical unions, they have been well equipped, according to the Local 436 leader. They also have close ties to the Department of Health, which means there’s been a better flow of information since the news of the outbreak. 

“The rest of us are at call centers,” said Arroyo. “My members have been the exception to the rule.”

Arroyo’s members are accustomed to dealing with health emergencies. 

“We’ve dealt with smallpox, anthrax, and tuberculosis,” said Arroyo. “It’s like taking the book down from a shelf, but we’ve always had something in place.”

Despite being prepared for such a disaster, Arroyo’s members have been working double shifts since the beginning of March. 

“I’ve heard they are tired and they are getting a bit exhausted,” she said. “We are putting things in place to get the word out through our shop stewards and leaders of the other locals.”

There is childcare in place to help essential city workers in DC 37 Local 436 and other locals, according to Arroyo.

March 21, 2020

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