Our contract with N.J. city is so bad, I worked while sick with coronavirus, DPW employee says
Posted Aug 07, 2020
When Muta El-amin got sick with the coronavirus in March, he had already used up his 40 hours of sick time as a per diem garbage truck driver for Newark.
So he had to make a tough choice: miss work and not get paid, or just work through it. His wife also became ill and they had two young children to feed.
“They said your sick days are up, so I came back in and I worked sick,” El-amin told NJ Advance Media, adding that he doesn’t have health benefits even though he was promised two years ago he would get them once he became permanent after 90 days.
A city spokesperson said Newark administrators were instructed to tell workers about a coronavirus sick leave policy that began March 10 that allows employees, including per diems, to receive pay for essentially two weeks.
Still, El-amin and other Workers United SEIU Local 617 union members who rallied in front of city hall on Thursday say several other city sanitation, public works and utility employees became sick with the virus and even died. Now, they want a new contract with pay increases, hazard pay and a guarantee of no furloughs in the future.
Local 617, which represents about 2,000 members across Newark and other municipalities, says the old contract with Newark expired more than a year and a half ago.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wrote to union officials on Aug. 4 saying the city has been fair to the union members and put the onus on budget shortfalls due to coronavirus. The city, Baraka said, is projected to lose at least $40 million due to the virus and has implemented hiring freezes, spending pauses and budget cuts to keep paying union members.
“Rather than embrace the drastic measures taken to protect your members, you have taken the position that under no circumstance will you entertain temporary furloughs, or a pay freeze, to save the jobs for all,” Baraka wrote. “Your position has been that you would rather sacrifice the jobs of some of your members in order to protect your friends and allies. We think differently.”
“We want to continue with pay freezes and hiring freezes so that those of your members who are working, and who want to work, can continue working to support their families.”
Local 617 President Lorenzo Hall said that’s an unfair argument since public works employees’ contract expired last year, before the coronavirus struck. He also pointed to the pay raises city council approved for themselves, the mayor and administrators last year.
“I don’t see you giving up anything of yours,” said Hall of city officials who just received pay raises. “These are the people who are paid the least amount of cash and you don’t balance a city budget on their backs.”
Public works employees consider themselves frontline workers, and the union says their average salary is $35,000.
They never stopped working, much like nurses, firefighters and police throughout the height of the pandemic. As their coworkers became ill or even died, those who came to work were tasked with more duties, union members told NJ Advance Media.
Sanitation workers are now being asked to work double shifts under a new pilot program, the union says. Some of them are now working nights on top of their regular morning shifts, giving them little time to sleep or spend time with their families.
“We had no choice,” said Quawee Elmore, who has worked as a sanitation worker for 10 years. “It’s either we do it or we get wrote up. I have no life.”
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