Negotiating in a pandemic: 32BJ, landlords reach reopening deal

Building workers union, Realty Advisory Board have hashed out back-to-work terms

Realty Board on Labor Relations president Howard Rothschild and 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg (Credit: Facebook, Linkedin)
Realty Board on Labor Relations president Howard Rothschild and 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg (Credit: Facebook, Linkedin)

Labor negotiations can be tense, a give-and-take dance between rivals across the table. But the pandemic changed that dynamic — moving contract talks to phone and video conferences.

The Realty Advisory Board of Labor Relations and 32BJ SEIU have reached several agreements in the past few months, including an extension of two contracts that were slated to expire for security officers and window cleaners.

There’s typically a more public lead-up to such contract renewals: The union hosts a rally in the final weeks of the contract and threatens to strike in the event of an impasse. But facing the coronavirus crisis, the groups agreed to extend the contracts through the end of this year, rather than the usual four-year term.

RAB President Howard Rothschild noted that the two groups have been in constant communication with each other since the city’s shutdown began.

“Especially during the pandemic, nobody’s looking to take an extra base here,” he said. “We’re really trying to work together to make the best of a very difficult situation.”

Now, the two groups have reached a deal laying out the terms of reopening office and residential buildings. The agreement, which was finalized Friday, builds on previous deals by extending benefits for laid-off or otherwise ineligible employees for another 30 days (for a total of 90 days).

It also eases workload requirements for contractors and revises rules for calling laid-off employees back to work, including giving them additional time to respond and defining when they can decline. For the latter, the employee has to be eligible for a form of leave. The agreement also allows for flexibility in work hours, given the overnight subway closure.

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“Together, we have been able to come up with more flexible rules that can accommodate current limitations, health and family needs, while keeping people working safely,” Kyle Bragg, SEIU 32BJ’s president, said in a statement. “And we have also worked on measures aimed at preventing layoffs and dealing with worker displacement so that we can preserve these family-sustaining jobs which will help keep our communities stable.”

The groups have also agreed to hold grievance and arbitration hearings remotely, to avoid a build-up of cases. Separate agreements with 32BJ and operating engineers union Local 94 allow employers to participate in the state’s shared work program, which allows employees to receive partial unemployment insurance while working reduced hours — and cuts down on layoffs.

According to Rothschild, roughly 8,000 commercial employees have been laid off — of 32BJ’s more than 23,000 members — and 800 have been let go on the residential side.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that he expects New York City to begin phase one of reopening on June 8. Construction and manufacturing will be the first industries to go back to work, followed by real estate and retail in phase two.

Restaurants and hotels will reopen as part of the third phase, while arts, entertainment, education and other forms of recreation will be in the fourth.

Write to Kathryn Brenzel at