Service workers strike at two luxury Manhattan buildings

Employees say they lacked adequate protective gear during pandemic

Essential workers at two luxury Manhattan resi buildings have walked out on the job, citing poor work conditions and harassment. (Credit: SEIU 32BJ)
Workers at two luxury Manhattan residential buildings have walked out on the job, claiming poor work conditions and harassment. (Credit: SEIU 32BJ)

Workers at two luxury residential buildings in Manhattan have walked out on the job, saying their employer has failed to provide appropriate pay or safety gear.

The service workers, who are based at The Chamberlain and 432 West 52nd Street condominiums, walked out at 11:30 a.m. Thursday and will strike for 24 hours, they said.

They accuse their employer, building-services contractor Planned Companies, of paying them substandard rates while they work through the coronavirus pandemic, and blocking their efforts to join labor union SEIU 32BJ. They also say Planned failed to provide enough masks and gloves to protect them on the job.

“The supplies are very limited,” said Tunde Bello, 32, a porter and handyman at The Chamberlain, 269 West 87th Street, on a teleconference Thursday set up by 32BJ. “They want us to use the masks for three days … They want us to wear gloves and put Purell gel on our gloves — inside and outside, to save the gloves. There’s just way too much going on that’s unacceptable.”

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Developed by Simon Baron Development and Quadrum Global, the Chamberlain has 18 stories and 39 units ranging in price from $2.3 million to $11.5 million, according to StreetEasy. The condo at 432 West 52nd Street, developed by JVL Property Group, Okada Acquisitions and Zion Enterprises, has 55 units across seven stories.

Building service workers have been deemed essential by the state, exempting them from the sweeping shutdown imposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month. The governor this week also required employers statewide to provide face masks to essential workers.

Ben Martin, a spokesman for Planned Companies, said in a statement that the company has provided employees with “the proper personal protective equipment based on their job functions.” The firm is also working to establish a relief fund for affected employees, he said.

The company appeared to accuse 32BJ of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to advance its efforts to bring employees of the two condominiums into the union.

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“In a time when unemployment and anxiety are at unprecedented levels, SEIU 32BJ continues to use this health emergency to proliferate an agenda of operational disruption and muscle-flexing in the name [of] political and financial gain,” Martin said.

Rob Hill, the union’s vice president, said in response that, “while SEIU 32BJ has been working with employers all over the city to come up with creative ways to make sure essential workers like our members are able to continue working, continue having access to quality employer-paid health insurance, do their jobs safely and keep New Yorkers safe during this difficult time, companies like Planned offer their workers uncertainty, harassment and bad working conditions.”

Earlier in the day, Planned workers at five buildings in New Jersey also staged a walkout over working conditions. One of their colleagues, a porter at the Beacon condominium in Jersey City, had died of complications from Covid-19 on April 11, the union said, adding that the man had continued to work after telling family members on the weekend of April 4 that he felt unwell.

The natural order inside New York’s residential buildings has been disrupted by the pandemic. The state last month ordered all communal spaces, including playrooms, gyms and pools, to shut down. Some property managers have prepared residents to operate their buildings — dealing with security and cleaning services and the like — in case building staff falls ill or is unavailable. One law firm advised its condo and co-op clients to warn residents that they might have to sort and distribute mail and take garbage out to the street, among other tasks.

The strikes are the latest examples of pushback from essential workers who face greater risk of exposure than people staying home. Last month, workers for grocery-delivery service Instacart staged a strike over insufficient safety measures and pay. Workers for Amazon and Whole Foods have done the same.

This is not the first time Planned has been called out by its employees: In 2018, the company was accused of owing thousands of dollars in back pay to workers at 282 South 5th Street, a luxury rental building in Williamsburg.

Unionization efforts are generally backed by the city’s elected officials, who are almost all Democrats and know 32BJ has a robust campaign operation that can make the difference in political races. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Sen. Robert Jackson, City Council member Helen Rosenthal and Assembly member Linda Rosenthal were all on the call to support the Planned workers.

“They are considered essential workers and they are asked to go out every day, risking exposure to this terrible virus, but they don’t get any extra compensation — or even compensation that matches what others doing the same work make,” Brewer said. “They don’t know if they can get paid for time off if they need to care for themselves or loved ones who get sick, or if they have to quarantine.”

“Treat these essential workers with essential respect,” Brewer added. “Give them the pay, the benefits and the protections they deserve.”

Write to Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at