Volume 20, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 22 - 28 , 2008

Photo by Clark Jones

Dwayne Bowens, center, and other office cleaners and union reps passed out leaflets outside 123 William St. on Valentine’s Day after their salaries were cut by more than half. “I was devastated,” said Bowens, who is supporting four daughters.

Workers’ salaries slashed severely at Downtown building

By Julie Shapiro

Sultana Tellie’s salary dropped 63 percent overnight.
Her job didn’t change — she’s still cleaning offices at 123 William St., just like she’s been doing for the last 16 years. But now, instead of making $20.50 an hour plus benefits, Tellie, 50, makes only $7.50 an hour and receives no benefits.

The salary cut took effect earlier this month, after the building owner hired a new cleaning contractor. The 20 office cleaners had been working under union contractor First Quality Maintenance, but now found themselves working for nonunion Servco Industries, Inc., receiving far less pay.

The turnaround is enough to give anyone whiplash, and the workers are still reeling.

Tellie, who lives in Staten Island, has three kids and a mortgage to pay. Her husband’s salary as a handyman won’t be enough to keep the family afloat.

“We are so nervous,” she said. “How are we going to do it?”

The workers could look for another job, but many have been at 123 William St. for many years and want to stay. Tellie, who is Albanian and wears a head scarf, came to the United States 36 years ago. She likes her job and would rather stay put.

“I want to fight with this job first,” she said inside her union’s office right before a petition drive.

The workers are protesting the wage cut with the help of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32 BJ. Their petition has gathered about 200 signatures from tenants of the office building, and several elected officials have expressed support as well.

“There is no economic reason for the owner to do this,” said Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of 32 BJ. “Everybody else is paying union rates. It’s devastating.”

The union estimates that 90 percent of office-cleaning contractors in the city pay union rates. Union workers receive at least $19.50 an hour, plus family health insurance and a pension plan.

The building owner, AM Property Holding Corp., did not return a call for comment. A Servco representative declined to comment.

Another worker, Dwayne Bowens, 46, has been at 123 William St. for 10 years doing maintenance and cleaning.

“I was devastated,” Bowens said of the wage cut. “It’s like going from the top to the bottom so fast because we don’t know anything about it.”

The new wages are comparable to what he made 20 years ago — without adjusting for inflation. Bowens, who lives in the Bronx and has four daughters, said he wouldn’t be able to live with the pay decrease. Even worse is the loss of health insurance, which means that his daughter may have to go without her daily medication.

Bowens felt like he had few options when the new contractor came in.

“They said, ‘Take these wages or get out,’” Bowens said. “It’s not fair to us.”

He is considering looking for another job, but that takes time. For now, like Tellie, he would rather stay and fight.

Several of the building’s tenants issued statements supporting the workers.

“They are hardworking and dedicated individuals,” said Arnold Kriss, a former candidate for district attorney in Brooklyn, whose law office is at 123 William St. “The building staff deserves to be paid fair and decent wages with health care benefits.  Hopefully, the building’s owners will be responsive to the staff’s pleas that they be treated fairly.”

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