Jersey City, NJ – Residential workers at five luxury buildings in Northern New Jersey who are employees of Planned companies, a building services contractor, walked off the job on Thursday morning, taking the unprecedented step to strike while the COVID-19 pandemic rages through the city.
Dozens of workers from The Cliffs (Jersey City), Galaxy Towers (Gutenberg), Towne Centre (Englewood), Washington Towers and Ambassador Towers (East Orange) staged a 24-hour walkout from their jobs starting Thursday morning in front of The Cliffs.
The workers are protesting long-time mistreatment by the company, which they say has violated their rights to join a union, intimidated them and has denied them essential pay and benefits that are standard for the industry.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged, some say the company has also made it difficult for them to take sick days to care for themselves or family members, and has not provided them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We’ve been told we’re essential workers. And we continue to go to work every day because we need to make a living. But right now, I can’t say I’m making a living. I make $14.50 an hour and live with my elderly parents because I can’t afford a place of my own,” said Michael Mohrle, 48, who has worked as concierge at Towne Center in Englewood for 9 years. “I worry every day that going back and forth to work puts not just me, but my parents at risk to catch the virus. We’ve been given disinfectant wipes but not much beyond that. We cannot wait any longer to be treated right. We need Planned to give us respect, the wages we deserve as essential workers, and access to affordable health care.”
Wearing masks and purple bandannas used as face coverings, the workers chanted “No threats, no bribes, we’re fighting for our lives!” and held up signs saying “Quality Health Care Now” and “On Strike over Planned’s Unfair Labor Practices” standing a safe social distance from each other.
The Manhattan walkout at the two buildings took place a few hours after a similar walkout by over a dozen Planned employees from five New Jersey luxury buildings gathered outside a Jersey City luxury housing complex called The Cliffs.
Some workers said they were especially upset when they learned about the death last week of a porter in a Jersey City, NJ, building where Planned employs building service staff. Other workers at the building were told by the employer to go home to quarantine, but at first were not offered paid time off for those days, and were only granted them after pressuring the employer.
“In the best of times, going on strike is an extreme step, one that workers take when they have exhausted all their options to resolve issues they have with their employers,” said Kevin Brown, SEIU 32BJ Vice President and head of the union’s New Jersey division. “The workers striking today are essential to keep these large, luxury residential buildings running and safe. But they are not being treated with the respect that essential workers deserve. For too long, they have endured wages too low to live on in this state, little to no meaningful access to benefits, and they have been harassed by their employer when they organized to join a union. That is some way to treat a so-called essential worker. Now, those conditions are too much to bear. So they have come together to say — enough!”
State and city elected officials voiced their support for the workers.
“Planned workers are on the frontlines of this crisis. As many residents remain sheltering in place, these workers are making sure that people get their packages, that their trash gets taken out, among other vital and essential work,” said Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea. “I am honored to stand with residential workers in Hudson County who are protesting their employer’s illegal practices and demanding fair pay and decent benefits.”
“Jersey City has been especially hard by the COVID crisis. Nobody has faced the severity of the battle against COVID like the essential workers who remain on the job and keep our city clean, safe, and functioning,” said Jersey City Councilman-at-large Rolando Lavarro. “Now more than ever, I support the Planned workers in their fight for dignity and voice on the job. They deserve to be compensated justly for the critical work they do every day.”
“It is unjust for frontline workers to be treated so poorly, especially in the midst of the COVID crisis. The men and women who are taking action today are putting their lives on the line to make sure residence in Jersey City are safe and looked after,” said Jersey City Councilman Jermaine Robinson. “We must do right by them and ensure that have the pay and benefits they deserve. I will stand with them until they achieve justice.”
Planned Companies have a long history of repeated violations of federal labor law, illegally threatening workers for supporting unions, refusing to hire union members, and other violations of U.S. labor law. These violations resulted most recently in a 2019 settlement for $873,000 including back wages for lower Manhattan office cleaners. In 2019, Planned Companies fired a union supporter at the Xchange apartment complex in Secaucus, NJ and cut the hours of a union supporter at The Beacon apartment complex in Jersey City.
Planned Companies have a record of poverty jobs, inadequate to support a family in New Jersey. Planned pays its workers as little as $11 an hour, or approximately $22,880 a year for a full time employee. This income is inadequate to support a family or even a single adult in New Jersey. The company also offers few meaningful benefits. A survey of 90 doorpersons who work for Planned conducted by SEIU 32BJ found that more than 60% have no form of health insurance.
Planned Companies have also been shown to engage in wage theft. In 2018 the New Jersey Department of Labor investigated two of their companies and found they had engaged in wage theft by failing to pay the full overtime wages owed to more than 300 employees. NJ DOL ordered the companies to pay $12,000 in back wages and $4,000 in penalties and fees. In 2017, US DOL ordered the companies to compensate employees for more than $60,000 in wages stolen over a two year period from 2015 to 2017.
With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 13,000 in New Jersey and 85,000 in New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country