NEW YORK — Workers and more than 200 supporters and members of SEIU 32BJ rallied today to protest wage cuts and the elimination of health benefits, paid vacation and sick days and pensions for the building’s cleaners after Eretz Group took over 295 Madison Ave. and hired a new cleaning contractor.
The new contractor, Novel Service Group (NSG), took over the cleaning contract when the building at Madison Ave. and 41st St. changed hands. NSG offered the cleaners their old jobs back – but at about half of what they were previously paid, and with none of the benefits the workers had while they were working for the previous cleaning company. Their existing health benefits end Sept. 29.
“Almost overnight, these workers went from making $22.97 an hour to just $12 and hour and lost other basic benefits workers everywhere should have,” said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, which represented the workers under the former cleaning company, Quality Business Services.
“How are they supposed to pay their rent or mortgages, buy clothes and support their families? Several of them have health issues, including one cleaner whose wife has been treated for cancer for the last four years,” Aldebol said.
“My wife was diagnosed with a cancerous growth in her head,” said cleaner Husnijah Betktesevic, 59, whose wife, Sabaheta, has a cancerous growth in her head. “Without insurance, the costs would be up to $6,000 a month, which I cannot afford.”
Bektesevic, who has been a cleaner for 23 years – the last 18 months at 295 Madison – and the eight other cleaners who work at the building, said they had suspected for about a year that the building was up for sale. The sale closed Aug. 29 and the new cleaning company immediately cut their pay and told them they would no longer receive paid vacations or sick days.
“It is simply outrageous and unacceptable for a new contractor to cut existing employee’s salaries in half and eliminate all their health benefits, overtime and paid vacations and sick days,” said City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “That’s why we’re here today to call on both 295 Madison’s new owner Eretz Groups and new cleaning contractor Novel Service Group to support these hardworking New Yorkers and reverse their decision.”
Worker Marlon Escoto, 43, who has worked at 295 Madison for 12 years, said the workers are quick to respond to any emergencies.
“This is an enormous hardship,” said Escoto, who lives in Astoria, Queens.
City Council Member Gale Brewer said: “As the prime sponsor of the City Council’s Paid Sick Leave legislation, I have long been a steadfast advocate for the basic rights of working men and women in our city. All workers in New York deserve decent wages and benefits, and I am proud to stand with 32BJ and these workers to demand fairness from employers in New York City.”
Norma Feliz-Fajardo of Jackson Heights, Queens, has worked in the building for 18 years. “When I returned from vacation last month I was told the building had been sold and a new company, NSG, was now in charge of the cleaning contract. They cut our pay in half and eliminated our benefits.”
And cleaner Alberto Solano, 46, who has worked in the building for 10 years, said the pay cut and elimination of benefits means that two of his children, ages 10 and 12, may have to go without their asthma medication and regular doctor visits.
“When my health coverage ends on Sept. 29, I don’t know how I will pay my bills.”
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With more than 145,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.