More than 100 workers from the nonprofit Housing Works walked off the job and rallied at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday morning to protest an adversarial workplace environment and to demand their employer “remain neutral” about their push to unionize.
The criticisms leveled by employees of Housing Works are out of sync with the organization’s reputation and long history of fighting for people with HIV/AIDS, providing housing assistance, social services and health care. Housing Works thrift shops are welcome neighborhood fixtures in New York City.
Yet workers — including case managers, social workers, retail workers and long-time volunteers — described burnout, low pay, unmanageable caseloads, lack of training and even discrimination and harassment on the job.
The organization employs 800 workers, but turnover of employees is at 30 percent, employees said.
“I had high hopes for Housing Works, but after working here for a while I’ve found that there is a high turnover because of many structural issues,” Brian Grady, Housing Works Downtown Brooklyn housing coordinator, told the Borough Hall crowd. “Low pay, problems with paid time off and the lack of a living wage at this job are demoralizing for us.”
Anti-union tactics seem to go against the historical grain of the charity, founded in 1990 by leaders from the boldly aggressive activist group Act Up. Yet workers say the organization has become less progressive than many corporations that maintain union neutrality.
Grady said that the nonprofit’s management has hired a “union-busting” law firm, Seyfarth Shaw LLP, to fight them. Seyfarth Shaw “tried to take down Cesar Chavez,” he said.
Seyfarth Shaw specializes in defending companies against employee claims. In 2018, the firm was hired by Harvey Weinstein to defend his company against numerous sexual harassment charges.
Social workers and care managers also complained about excessive caseloads and unsafe working conditions.
Case manager Rebecca Mitnik said that, “an organization born out of radical Act Up should know that excessive caseloads is not a sound policy.” She said that Housing Works advised burnt-out workers to take a mental health day, but “taking a mental health day doesn’t reduce secondary trauma and burnout.”
Councilmember Brad Lander praised the bravery of the Housing Works employees in standing up for themselves and their clients.
“This is what solidarity looks like,” he said.
Manhattan Councilmember Ben Kallos said, “It says something that the number one demand is caseload.” The average pay of Housing Works employees is $16.23, he noted, “Too close to the minimum wage.”
He also listed “No clear grievance process and concern about a safe work environment” as good reasons to unionize.
Housing Works employees have been working with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union for months in their unionization efforts.
Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president, said he was shocked to hear of the issues being experienced by Housing Works employees, given the organization’s reputation.
“It is clear that Housing Works has strayed very far away from its original progressive values in dealing with its workforce, and it’s deeply troubling,” Appelbaum said.
Housing Works employees have filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and want the company to sign a neutrality agreement to allow the unionization process to continue free from pressure or coercion.
Following the rally, workers returned to their jobs. Some of the workers didn’t have to walk far. The newest Housing Works retail outlet opened on Oct. 26, one block away from the rally, at 150 Montague St.
This is the 14th Housing Works Thrift Shop location in New York City and the third shop in Brooklyn, which includes stores in Park and South Slope.
Housing Works CEO Charles King told the Eagle, “We respect the right of our employees to engage in any lawful labor action, and we have committed to remaining neutral in this process. We have always been supportive of our employees’ efforts to advocate for themselves, our programs, and our constituency. In July, we invested substantially in employee benefits — offering more paid time off and assistance with student loans without increasing health care premiums.”