Workers say Employer Pressured them not to Join Union, and Disregards their Safety and Well-Being in COVID-19 Pandemic
New York, NY – Residential workers at two high-end buildings in the West Side of Manhattan who are employees of Planned companies, a building services contractor, walked off the job on Thursday morning, taking the unprecedented step to strike while the COVID-19 pandemic rages through the city.
Almost a dozen workers from the Upper West Side building The Chamberlain, located at 269 W 87th Street, and 432 W 52nd Street staged a 24-hour walkout from their jobs starting Thursday morning.
The workers are protesting long-time mistreatment by the company, which they say has violated their rights to join a union, intimidated them and has denied them essential pay and benefits that are standard for the industry.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged, some say the company has also made it difficult for them to take sick days to care for themselves or family members, and has not provided them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Right now, I feel like Planned has gotten away with a lot, and at a time of pandemic it needs to stop. That’s why I’m willing to take the risk to strike today,” said Tunde Bello, 32, a porter at the Chamberlain for 9 years. “I am worried every day as I commute from Coney Island on a crowded train, I feel every time I go out, I risk getting sick and bringing it home to my family. We have had so few gloves that I’ve had to put Purell inside and out the pairs I have.”
Wearing masks and purple bandannas used as face coverings, the workers chanted “No threats, no bribes, we’re fighting for our lives!” and held up signs saying “Quality Health Care Now” and “On Strike over Planned’s Unfair Labor Practices” standing a safe social distance from each other, as a caravan of cars with supporters cruised slowly past, honking in support and displaying signs saying “Planned Workers on Strike.”
The Manhattan walkout at the two buildings took place a few hours after a similar walkout by over a dozen Planned employees from five New Jersey luxury buildings gathered outside a Jersey City luxury housing complex called The Cliffs.
Some workers said they were especially upset when they learned about the death last week of a porter in a Jersey City, NJ, building where Planned employs building service staff. Other workers at the building were told by the employer to go home to quarantine, but at first were not offered paid time off for those days, and were only granted them after pressuring the employer.
“In the best of times, going on strike is an extreme step, one that workers take when they have exhausted all their options to resolve issues they have with their employers,” said SEIU 32BJ Vice President Rob Hill, who is director of organizing at the union. “Our members have fought for fair wages, good benefits and protections in their worksite—which now include protections critical to keeping them safe during the pandemic. All those things are more important than ever as those who have been designated as essential workers continue to go to work every day, leaving their homes and their families so they can continue to earn their keep. The workers striking today are essential to keep these large, luxury residential buildings running and safe. But they are not being treated with the respect that essential workers deserve.”
Andre Kelly, who has worked at the Chamberlain since last year, said that when he and other workers were organizing to join a union, the company organized a mandatory meeting with the company’s CEO where workers were told why they should not join a union.
“Afterward, my supervisor approached me, and handed me an envelope and saying to me, ‘you’re appreciated.’ It had $50 check in it, with taxes taken out. Like that was somehow supposed to persuade me to do what they wanted,” said Kelly, 60, who works as a concierge on the overnight shift at the building.
Kelly also talked about how he felt mistreated by the company when his wife was diagnosed with COVID-19. “My wife had to go into quarantine on March 19, so I had to go into quarantine too,” said Kelly. “For two weeks, I kept calling and asking if I was going to get paid for that time off. It wasn’t until the end of the two weeks that they finally informed me I would get paid.”
Several state and city elected officials representing Manhattan voiced their support for the workers.
“Residential building workers are essential to keeping a functional, clean and safe environment for residents,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “I support these workers in defending themselves against harassment and intimidation— and in their fight for benefits like affordable health care coverage and adequate sick days that are needed now more than ever. These workers are putting themselves and their families at risk by working on the front lines of the pandemic; they deserve respect.”
“Essential residential workers risking their health and well-being by providing vital services shouldn’t have to protest and demand fair wages and benefits, especially in the middle of a pandemic, said State Senator Brad Hoylman. “Planned Companies should be ashamed of their irresponsible and dangerous treatment of these workers. I strongly support the action against Planned Companies today. Now, more than ever, workers need affordable health care, family-sustaining wages, and adequate sick time.”
“As a former union organizer and field director for over two decades, I am proud to stand with residential workers protesting their employer’s illegal practices and demanding fair pay and decent benefits,” said State Senator Robert Jackson. “Essential workers are risking their lives by continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Planned Companies must do the right by both their workers and New Yorkers—provide these front-line workers with essential pay, PPE, and fair wages and benefits!”
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is reprehensible that Planned companies treats its workers with such contempt by not paying them essential wages, not supplying everyone with adequate personal protective equipment and offering a shoddy health care plan that is unaffordable’ said said Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal. “The workers, who are deemed essential, are literally putting their lives on the line to do their jobs. I fully support their decision to strike. A job should not cost one’s life and the lives of one’s family because of unnecessary exposure to a virus with no known cure. Planned companies has also been intimidating and coercing the building service employees who work in buildings in my district when they tried to organize to join SEIU 32BJ. This kind of conduct will not be tolerated. I call on Planned companies to step up, to be a good corporate citizen and treat the workers with respect, fairness and dignity.”
“No essential worker in New York City should be earning poverty wages. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place essential workers at risk on the front lines, I am outraged that Planned companies would disregard their employee’s efforts to organize and offer little to no benefits,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal. “I stand with these residential workers in their action against their employer’s illegal harassment.”
Additional information Planned companies have a long history of repeated violations of federal labor law, illegally threatening workers for supporting unions, refusing to hire union members, and other violations of U.S. labor law. These violations resulted most recently in a 2019 settlement for $873,000 including back wages for lower Manhattan office cleaners.
The CEO of Planned Companies implied that workers at 435 West 52nd Street, a luxury condo building in Midtown Manhattan, would be fired if they voted to join the union. And at Stella Tower, another Midtown condo building, a supervisor threatened to write up workers for engaging in union activity.
Planned has also attempted to intimidate some workers who were campaigning for a union contract, offering a check to one worker at the Chamberlain on the Upper West Side and gift certificates to others at 525 West 43rd Street to discourage support for the union.
Planned companies have a record of poverty jobs, inadequate to support a family — or even an individual — in New York City. Planned pays full time employees in New York City as little as $33,000 a year, far below the industry standard of $53,300 a year earned by more than 35,000 residential workers across NYC.
The company also offers few meaningful benefits. A survey of 90 doorpersons who work for Planned conducted by SEIU 32BJ found that more than 60% have no form of health insurance.
Planned companies have also been shown to engage in wage theft. In 2019 the New York City Comptroller found that Planned companies had violated the state prevailing wage law by failing to pay more than $420,000 worth of prevailing wages and benefits to the staff of 282 South 5th Street, a luxury apartment building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The NYC Comptroller is investigating additional ongoing violations at 282 South 5th Street as well as at 535 West 43rd Street and 221 West 29th Street, two other luxury apartment buildings staffed by Planned companies.
With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 13,000 in New Jersey and 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country