Brooklyn Boro

Housing Works employees protest, claiming harassment and union-busting tactics

October 30, 2019 Mary Frost
Brian Grady, a housing coordinator at Housing Works in Downtown Brooklyn, speaks through a megaphone at a rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday. Housing Works employees, citing harsh conditions and high caseloads, want to unionize. To the right are Councilmembers Brad Lander, Jimmy Van Bramer and Ben Kallos, and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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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.

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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.

Councilmember Ben Kallos, center, and Councilmember Brad Lander to the right, at the Housing Works employee rally. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Councilmember Ben Kallos, center, and Councilmember Brad Lander to the right, at the Housing Works employee rally. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

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.”

Update (4:30 p.m.): The headline for this story has been updated.

Update (4:35 p.m.): The article has been updated with a comment from Housing Works CEO Charles King.

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  1. further3333

    I disagree 100% with this article. I’ve worked at Housing Works in a non supervisory role for almost 15 years and haven’t seen or heard any “anti-union’ tactics being employed. Regarding demands- Our caseloads are the lowest they’ve been in 4 years, down from in some cases almost 100 to an average of 48.5 right now. They are Lower than or comparable to most Care Management agencies of our size. It’s been a long, hard process to get them down since NYS implemented the Medicaid Redesign and the inception of Health Homes in 2012, but Housing Works has been working diligently to reduce caseloads while keeping up with state demands and requirements and is ahead of the curve for most Care Management Agencies, all the while doing our best to serve our clients. The staff turn over rate is consistent with social work agencies dealing with difficult, undeserved populations. The work is hard, homelessness is at a high, finding affordable housing for clients is more difficult than ever. How will a UNION help in this? Many of our CM staff just got raises and HW has been working on bringing all staff salary up to market rate for the last 5 or so years. We already have a generous Time -Off policy. The neutrality agreement they want HW to sign will require HW to give the union all staff’s contact and other personal information and require them to attend union meetings. That should be my CHOICE. I don’t want my info given out. Our Management has an open door policy and people should be working to make changes from within. Of COURSE there many are things that need improvement, no agency is perfect, but I don’t see how bringing in a third party, yet another layer of bureaucracy and red tape (not to mention having to pay union dues monthly), will help matters. I am a long time advocate for human rights, including worker rights, and have participated in numerous demonstrations and civil disobedience and arrests WITH my agency and CEO, Charles King. Our legacy IS one of advocacy. I am 100% all for unions, but in THIS case, I don’t think this is a good fit for our agency, and our case management staff in particular. And portraying Housing Works as some kind of union-busting overlord is just plain crazy. Just my 2 cents

  2. StanChaz

    My suggestion would be to “FOLLOW THE MONEY ” with regards to Housing Works as an organization.
    In other words: who reaps the rewards, who gets the big bucks (and for what work) — and who gets shafted or left behind?
    This is more than “simply” a fledgling union trying to get its act together
    in the face of both shameful & high-powered union-busting tactics & push back.
    The historical reputation, goals, ideals AND WORKERS of Housing Works deserve better – much better.
    This is New York City – where we fight for our workers, and for our unions and for the right to unionize.
    All workers absolutely need a strong union voice to have their backs, and to back their interests,
    –perhaps most especially in any organization trying to hide behind a
    do-gooder / holier than thou / we can do no wrong / don’t you dare criticize us facade.
    The more they say: “we don’t need a union”,
    the more they say: “we know what’s best for you”,
    the more they say: “nothing to see here folks — move on, move on“
    –the more you know in your guts that Housing Works needs a strong worker union.
    800 workers and their families demand fairness, justice & dignity
    – with a seat at at the table and a meaningful union-backed voice.
    Is that too much to ask in an organization with such high-minded ideals?
    We already have quite enough hypocrisy in our society, with people saying things they don’t mean,
    with double-standards, with double-dealing, with gross inequality.
    Make Housing Works also work for all its workers – and more fully fulfill its mission.