As the cost of living continues to soar, some of New York’s most relied-upon workers — the staff of luxury high-rise buildings — plan to strike if negotiations for a pay increase and protected health benefits don’t succeed ahead of their April 20 contract expirations. Several Hell’s Kitchen buildings have informed residents of a possible disruption of services should the strike occur.
The SEIU-32BJ Union, which represents over 175,000 property service workers and more than 32,000 workers from New York City alone (including superintendents, porters, handymen, concierges, and door attendants) has threatened a strike that would affect more than 3,000 buildings citywide, including West Side properties from Silverstein, Vornado Realty Trust, and Related. The combined property management firms negotiate together as the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations.
“We are fighting for a fair chance — we worked very hard during the pandemic and we deserve fair contract terms,” said Crystal Ann Johnson, a concierge and doorperson at Silver Towers on W42nd and 11th Avenue for the last five years and also a member of SEIU-32BJ’s bargaining committee. “We are going to get what we deserve.”
According to the SEIU-32BJ, building staff make an average of $55,000 a year. Per the most recent US Census, the median household income in NYC is $67,046. The current contract, set in 2018, ensures a 3.3 percent wage and benefit increase. Union members are now seeking a wage increase tied to current inflation and rising housing costs, which would amount to a 5.1 percent increase in New York.
In addition to wage negotiations, the union is seeking to protect the current healthcare benefits awarded to members — the Realty Advisory Board has recently moved to reduce coverage from a 100 percent employer-paid plan to a shared-premium model, wherein workers would pay into insurance plans out of each paycheck. According to a union representative, the SEIU-32BJ are also protesting the RAB’s move to claw back sick time from 10 to 7 allotted days, and to reduce paid vacation by as much as a week.
SEIU 32BJ Union president Kyle Bragg said in a statement to W42ST: “During the most challenging time to ever work in New York City, 32BJ workers rightly received applause. Now that we’re at contract time, it is unacceptable to replace that applause for the essential service of our members with cuts to their essential benefits. We continue to negotiate in good faith for the fair contract our members expect and deserve.”
Over the course of the pandemic, union building staff worked long shifts with little coverage and an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many workers were tasked not only to keep up with standard building maintenance needs (including a significant increase in home deliveries) but also to step in as public health officials — enforcing mask and social distance rules as well as frequently handling harsh chemical disinfectants. More than 170 SEIU-32BJ workers, including 40 building personnel, died from exposure to the virus.
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Johnson recalled the stressors of working at Silver Towers during the pandemic: “It was a very scary experience. You put your life and your family’s life in danger. But it was a job a I signed up for, so I got up every day and went to work and did everything I could to protect myself.”
Ahead of the April 20 deadline, seven bargaining sessions remain between SEIU-32BJ and the RAB. Some management companies across the city have sent memos to residents in anticipation of service disruption, including mail reception and trash services.
W42ST received the following statement from Howard Rothschild, President of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations:
“The RAB presented a series of proposals to 32BJ on March 16th. The proposals included a fair and reasonable wage increase and the sharing of healthcare costs through employee contributions to the premiums, of which employees currently pay zero. The parties have a long history of successful collective bargaining. We worked in partnership to protect workers and extend full family health benefits during the pandemic, and we will continue to work towards reaching a fair contract for both sides by April 20th.”
In turn, SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg drove home the essential value of New York’s building staff, who have weathered decades of challenges to care for residents: “As many residents in New York worked from home, our members continued to go to work and provided essential services that made remote work possible — and that’s because our members are no strangers to a challenge. They have worked through multiple crises in this city – from 9/11 to hurricanes and natural disasters. This pandemic was just the most recent challenge that our members have overcome. And, it has shown how essential our members are to the character and success of New York. We know that the city’s real estate market has made a booming comeback and our members deserve a contract package that recognizes the vital services they deliver each and every day.”
Johnson agreed, adding: “I just hope that the RAB is aware of what we went through, and that we should have protections and systems in place to ensure that we are prepared in the face of another pandemic or city emergency.”
W42ST reached out to Silverstein properties who declined to comment regarding the ongoing negotiations.