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Luxury-Building Workers Strike for Facemasks and a Union

April 17, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Building-service workers at two luxury buildings in Manhattan and five in New Jersey staged a one-day strike Apr. 16, charging that their employer, the Planned Companies building-services contractor, had illegally tried to block them from joining a union and failed to provide them with proper protective equipment during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Building service worker in NYC protests union-busting in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Things got worse during the pandemic,” Andre Kelly, 60, a night-shift concierge at the Chamberlain building at 269 West 87th St., said during a press conference hosted by 32BJ SEIU, which has been organizing Planned workers for several years. “We decided we’d just had enough.”

The union said all seven workers at the Chamberlain and the three on duty at 432 West 52nd St. walked out.

The “last straw,” said Chamberlain porter/handyman Tunde Bello, 32, of Coney Island, came on Apr. 11, when a worker at the Beacon, a six-building complex occupying the former Jersey City Medical Center, died from complications from COVID-19 infection. Planned told his coworkers to go home to quarantine without pay, according to 32BJ, but agreed to grant them paid time off after they protested. 

Workers said Planned has been slow to provide protective gear during the epidemic. “The supplies are very limited,” said Bello. “They want us to use the masks for three days,” and to put hand sanitizer on disposable gloves so they can be reused.

“How can we let essential workers do their jobs without providing them the protective equipment they need?” asked Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side.

Planned Companies, based in Parsippany, N.J., says it provides “industry-leading” janitorial, security, concierge/front desk, and building-maintenance services in the Northeast from Boston to northern Virginia, as well as in the San Francisco and Atlanta areas. The company has “a long history of labor-rights abuses,” said 32BJ vice president Rob Hill. The National Labor Relations Board has found that it committed unfair labor practices several times over the last 20 years just in the New York area, including threatening to fire union supporters and refusing to rehire union workers when it took over another company’s contract.

The NLRB, 32BJ says, is currently investigating charges that Planned illegally fired a union supporter at the Xchange apartment complex in Secaucus, N.J. and cut the hours of one at the Beacon, and that CEO Robert Francis implied that workers at 432 West 52nd Street would be fired if they voted to join the union. 

“How can we let essential workers do their jobs without providing them the protective equipment they need?” — Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.

The company pays significantly less than union scale, 32BJ says, with full-time workers in New York City making as low as $33,000 a year, compared to the union standard of $53,300. It also has a record of wage theft, particularly not paying overtime. Last year, city Comptroller Scott Stringer found that two Planned subsidiaries had cheated workers at 282 South 5th Street in Williamsburg out of more than $420,000 worth of prevailing wages and benefits required by state law for buildings receiving certain tax breaks. 

Planned offers health insurance, but it is so expensive that few workers use it. According to records the company provided to 32BJ as part if the bargaining process, only 13 out of 133 workers at certain New Jersey and New York locations were enrolled. The union’s survey of 90 doorpersons found that more than 60% had no health coverage.

“If I used the company’s medical care, I’d be dead broke,” said Bello.

Apartments at the Chamberlain are currently on sale for $2.5 to $6 million. 

Last October, Francis spoke at a captive-audience meeting at the building, telling workers that the company would take care of them on health care, and asking them to delay their vote on whether to unionize.

“He asked us to vote no,” Kelly said. “They never got back to us after that.”

After the meeting, he added, a manager came up to him, told him “you’re appreciated,” and handed him an envelope containing a check for $50—with taxes taken out.

Kelly didn’t feel so appreciated last month, when his doctor told him he needed to do a 14-day quarantine after his wife was exposed to the virus. When he asked a supervisor to take the two weeks as his paid time off, “the first words out of his mouth were, ‘You’re not getting paid.’” 

Kelly said he called the company regularly over the two weeks to ask for his money, but never got an answer. He finally got paid for them when he returned to work, he says, but “it put me through some panic.”

April 17, 2020

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