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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

The state of labor during the pandemic


District Council 37 leaders joined other union officials at a City Council hearing on proposed legislation to establish a board to review health and safety guidelines issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jan. 27 hearing was before the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Queens Council member I. Daneek Miller.

Union leaders spoke about the impact the pandemic has had on their members, and of the concerns they’ve face during the crisis.

“This crystallized the social and economic disparities in my local,” said Board of Education Employees Local 372 President Shaun D. Francois I.

Francois, also President of DC 37, added that his members are among the lowest paid city workers, with nearly a third over age 55 and at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Local 372’s workforce is predominately Black and Latino, with many members living in communities with the highest infection rates.

Francois told the panel that his local provided PPE for members, while school lunch workers provided more than 250,000 Grab-and-Go meals for children and seniors.

“School Crossing Guards were told if they didn’t come in, they would not get paid. They put themselves at risk to remain, while classrooms were empty, to ensure safe access to city schools for the Grab-and-Go program,” he said.

Ralph Palladino, 2nd Vice President of Local 1549, noted his local also had to provide PPE in the early stages of the pandemic for members, but the local’s relationship with the hospitals has been good. However, he added there are problems with overcrowding at HASA and other agencies, with clients failing to wear masks, and he addressed ongoing staffing issues. “We are short-staffed in 911, 311, in hospitals, and with eligibility specialists in HRA,” Palladino said. “We all need to go to Albany to demand revenue, not budget cuts.”

Oren Barzilay, EMS Local 2607 President, feared possible layoffs. “The city is under immense financial distress,” he said. “But their plan is laying off 22,000 workers, including in EMS. We must remember these first responders worked at the height of the pandemic, responding to 7,000 calls a day to ensure the safety of our city’s residents.”

SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells said, “It’s outrageous our workers in job and welfare centers go through a screening, but when a client comes, there is no screening. We tell them they should not be seeing clients who do not wear a mask, but the state says they can’t. We represent over 22,000 city employees in every agency. These are the workers you don’t see, and those workers keep city services running, the services people depend on for sustenance and support.”

Jeff Oshins, President of Local 3005, worried about the stress the pandemic has had on his members. “Being denied annual leave is not acceptable. Taking Criminalists and placing them on the frontlines of long operations is a serious concern,” he said. “We were successful in securing vaccinations and PPE for our members, especially those working in the pods during this process. But there’s still more that needs to be done for their protection.”