The union contract for 30,000 residential building workers who catered to wealthy New Yorkers through the pandemic is expiring — and owners from Billionaire’s Row to The Dakota are demanding that workers help pay for their health insurance
By: Claudia Irizarry Aponte – thecity.nyc
Doormen and building staff who’ve tended to New Yorkers through pandemic lockdowns and the work-from-home revolution are seeking higher wages — while luxury building landlords demand cutbacks to vacation and sick time, plus payments toward health insurance.
The management proposals, SEIU-32BJ union president Kyle Bragg told THE CITY, “amount to a slap in the face after the deadliest period to work and live in the history of New York City.”
The contract for more than 30,000 workers, from workaday rentals up to the ultra-luxury supertall 220 Central Park South on Billionaire’s Row and iconic co-ops like The Dakota, expires April 20. Already, some residents are receiving notices warning of potential disruptions to building services.
“If a strike is called, building activities such as apartment alterations and renovations, moves in and moves out, and deliveries will all be adversely affected,” read an email management company AKAM sent recently to residents at one Upper East Side co-op. “To that end, please schedule or re-schedule such activities so that they do not coincide with a possible strike.”
With market rents soaring, building workers are bargaining for a bigger piece of the pie, seeking increased wages and better benefits. In March, the median Manhattan asking rent reached an all-time high of $3,700 – more than 21% more than a year ago.
“The last two years were exceptionally difficult, and it took a toll on our financial, physical and emotional well-being,” said Stephen Yearwood, a maintenance worker and handyman at a co-op building in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “But despite those obstacles, we persisted and overcame all of the challenges.”
The collective bargaining agreement covers superintendents, porters, handymen, concierges and door attendants in properties owned or managed by Related Companies, Allied Partners, Vornado Realty Trust and other firms that negotiate together as the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations, with properties in every borough except The Bronx.
Workers are demanding a wage increase “at least” tied to inflation, which in New York City sits at a rate of 5.1%, and no changes to their health care, which is currently funded entirely by building and apartment owners.
“We know the landlords and the owners have benefited because where I work in Brooklyn, despite the difficulties in the last few years, the cost of the prices of apartments has not decreased — and as a matter of fact, they have a lot of people still moving in and still purchasing apartments,” Yearwood said.
“So we know that the owners or landlords, they have gained some money, and we find what we are asking for is not much.”
Shrinking Sick Time
The union and management have met three times since March 3 to discuss terms.
“Residential contract negotiations with 32BJ are continuing to move forward as we work towards reaching a fair contract for both sides,” said Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board, in a statement Tuesday. “We are hopeful that we will have more productive discussions in the coming weeks as we aim for an agreement by April 20th.”
Benefits have become a major sticking point, after management responded to the first round of negotiations by demanding workers contribute financially from their paychecks toward the cost of their health insurance premiums. Building owners also seek to reduce 10 days of sick time down to seven and to shrink vacation days.
Workers currently pay nothing out of pocket toward their health care premiums, according to a Realty Advisory Board spokesperson.
Yearwood noted workers like him “are very, very concerned about health care. Cost of health care is astronomical and prescription drugs are out of control.”
Rothschild responded in a statement that “premium contributions are a standard practice for most U.S. employees and we will continue to work towards reaching a fair contract for both sides by April 20th.”
Take home pay continues to be front of mind for workers given inflation, said Bryce Moreno, a doorman and porter at an East 79th Street condo building.
He said that an average grocery run for a week’s worth of food prior to inflation would have cost him “$120 to $130 — now it’s getting closer to $200,” he said. “We’re all feeling it right now.”
Moreno says workers have more than earned a wage increase for a job that has become more demanding during the pandemic — “rapidly and drastically.”
While risking exposure to the virus during lockdowns, building staff often hurtled into new or intensified responsibilities, including handling strong disinfectants and chemicals, enforcing mask and social distancing rules, and dealing with a deluge of deliveries as working from home has become commonplace.
More than 170 SEIU-32BJ members, including 40 who worked in residential buildings, died because of the virus, according to union spokesperson Tyrone Stevens.
Some buildings did give workers special stipends for their service during 2020 but Yearwood hopes to see hazard pay should be more “formalized” across the board.
Moreno agrees with the sentiment — recalling shifts that often lasted longer than 12 hours as workers started calling out sick from the job due to illness or exposure to the virus.
“A lot of us were nervous, really scared, but once we got into it as essential workers, it was full steam ahead.