A group of determined Housing Works employees walked into the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offices in downtown Brooklyn on February 14 and filed for an election, marking the latest step in their months-long unionization effort at the organization.
The workers at the Brooklyn-based non-profit — which serves clients at the intersection of homelessness and HIV/ AIDS and operates brick-and-mortar bookstores across the city — say they are fed up with poor working conditions, expensive healthcare plans that don’t provide adequate gender-affirming care, stagnant salaries, and high turnover rates, among other concerns. The unionization effort has exposed the resistance of Housing Works’ leadership to employee demands and placed the organization’s longstanding progressive reputation in serious jeopardy.
Employees are backed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which accompanied them during their trip to the NLRB. The workers publicly kicked off their union drive in October when they walked off the job and held a rally at the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall alongside RWDSU officials.
Workers say that Housing Works CEO Charles King continues to refuse to recognize their union or sign a neutrality agreement. Workers visited King’s office on February 13 in an unsuccessful bid to mend the divide between the two sides, but said they were ultimately left with no choice but to file for an election — a required step in order for the NLRB to confirm the union as the workers’ official bargaining representative. Employees submitted more than 400 cards in support of their unionization campaign.
“[King] says the company is neutral, but all his actions are stopping just short of saying, ‘Don’t vote for the union’ but doing everything to try to convince people not to,” Eric Fretz, who works at a Housing Works’ shop in Park Slope, told Gay City News as he and his colleagues waited for NLRB officials to process their filing.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of RWDSU, is standing firmly behind the employees and blasted King in strong terms for “trying to stand in their way.”
“Workers stood before their employer yesterday, with a majority of workers supporting the union,” Appelbaum said in a written statement. “But their so-called progressive employer leaned back and said no to recognizing their union… Charles King is gaslighting his workers when he says he is ‘neutral,’ and the workers won’t stand for it any longer.”
Other employees on hand during the mid-day visit to the NLRB offices in Brooklyn shed light on poor conditions they say they are facing, noted that pay is too low, and elaborated on their low-quality health insurance plan.
“Having to have very high monthly [health insurance] cost, and even with the amount they pay a month, it still is $45 to see a specialist,” said Ilana Engelberg, a care manager for Housing Works. “If that’s a mental health provider, that’s considered a specialist. Even with what the employer contributes, that’s a cost that is very prohibitive to most of us in the helping profession. We need to be seeing mental health providers regularly, and $45 to see a therapist every week is just really a barrier.”
King argued that the union organizers’ complaints about co-pays failed to note that Housing Works carries secondary insurance covering up to $50 of any co-pay, and that for services provided at the agency’s clinics or affiliated pharmacies co-pays are waived altogether. On that point, the union responded that, even with the first $50 in co-pays covered, employees face between $15 and $45 in out-of-pockets to see a specialist, depending on which of the agency’s three healthcare plans they choose.
Reached by phone hours after the workers took their case to the NLRB, King defended his position.
“From the very beginning, we encouraged the union to file for an election,” he told Gay City News. “We’re glad the union has moved forward and filed for an election. We intend to continue our neutrality and hope that we reach quick agreement with the union.”
What exactly King means by “neutrality,” however, is anyone’s guess because no agreement has been signed. Notably, King was caught up in a distortion of the situation last October when he sent an email to staff attempting to outline reasons why he refused to sign the neutrality agreement, despite the fact that his email came more than a month after Appelbaum offered multiple concessions in writing on the very issues King cited. Appelbaum’s concessions included a willingness to allow secret-ballot elections and to hold union meetings “with employees when employees are not required to work.”
During the February 14 phone call, King asserted that he met with the union for a negotiating meeting on the Monday before Christmas last year — and at that meeting the union withdrew its request for the neutrality agreement.
When reached after that phone call with King, the union head disputed King’s assertion.
“That’s a mischaracterization of the facts,” Appelbaum said. “After several delays by Housing Works, workers had no choice but to file for an election.”
Meanwhile, King also went on to defend the organization’s healthcare benefits and instead shifted the onus back on employees, saying that Housing Works “makes available the resources we can make available for benefits… it’s the employees who decide how much of that money goes into health insurance and how much of it goes into other things.”
King met questions about employees’ low pay with a mixed response. He conceded that “there are certain parts of the organization where people either carry too heavy a caseload or could be better compensated,” but he still maintained that salaries “by and large rank above the industry standard.”
He cautioned, however, that efforts by Governor Andrew Cuomo to cut $2.5 billion from Medicaid could negatively impact Housing Works’ Health Home care management program, which King acknowledged would be more effective with higher salaries and lower caseloads but is completely funded by Albany. Should the state eliminate that program or dramatically decrease its funding in the budget adopted for the fiscal year beginning April 1, that would likely lead to layoffs at the agency, he said.
Nonetheless, workers are confident that the election will go their way — and they’re hoping their employer doesn’t drag things out any longer.
“What I hope for is a quick and easy election and what I believe will happen is this election will have a ton of support among co-workers from all different sites and job titles,” Engelberg said, before acknowledging, “It’s very possible that there will be delays.”
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify the circumstances under which Housing Works might need to look at layouts in the state’s new fiscal year beginning April 1 as well as the debate between Housing Works and union organizers over the co-pays employees face under the agency’s healthcare plans.