Pandemic as pretext: Housing Works steps up its anti-union campaign

Marianne Garneau looks at the nonprofit’s use of the coronavirus crisis to defeat an organizing campaign. Image © Nigel Beale, Flickr

Housing Works, the sprawling New York nonprofit that does everything from housing placement to substance abuse counseling, is taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to step up its union-busting efforts.

Workers went public with the RWDSU in August of last year, after nearly a year of organizing. Housing Works refused the union’s request for neutrality and instead immediately retained the anti-union law firms Seyfarth Shaw and Nukk-Freeman Cerra, and began fighting the organizing effort with the usual playbook of captive meetings and layoffs.

Now the nonprofit is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to try to defeat the union once and for all.

Election delay

In the first place, it has seized upon an opportunity to delay the election. The union and employer had agreed that mail-in ballots would be sent out March 20, with workers having until April 10 to vote. About a week prior to the mail-out date, Housing Works began petitioning the regional Labor Relations Board to postpone the election.  Their stated concern was low voter turnout in light of the pandemic, which makes less sense for a mail ballot. Their other concern was not being able to hold captive meetings with staff around election time. The board denied Housing Works’ initial request for a delay. In response, Housing Works said they no longer consented to the stipulated election agreement, and demanded that the election not be held.

Because of this pushback, the regional board kicked the matter up to the National Labor Relations Board in DC, where Seyfarth Shaw was busy lobbying in favor of a suspension of representation elections. Unsurprisingly, the employers’ side prevailed at the NLRB, and on March 18 they issued such a suspension, with a further order the following day suspending even mail-in elections.

One worker, a case manager, noted that the delay was ironic in light of the organization’s recent “positivity campaign,” a get-out-the-vote effort telling workers to make their voices heard. The election was only petitioned for by RWDSU after the employer made it clear they would not voluntarily recognize the union on the basis of the majority of authorization cards it had already collected (400+ out of 600+ workers). The employer pivoted to trying to maximize the “no” vote.

Another Housing Works employee, a social worker, commented on the delay: “It seemed pretty calculated for them to take advantage of a crisis, to claim this solidarity / unity thing in postponing the election so we can navigate the crisis together as an agency.” Indeed, the nonprofit has consistently framed the union as dividing the staff. In a March 3 email to staff with the subject line “NLRB Union Vote (by Mail),” CEO Charles King harkened to the early days of the organization — which has always focused on AIDS and HIV-affected populations — when the staff were “struggl[ing] with rage, fear and grief.” He assured them that “after this election” they would “come together as a community and heal and find our way forward,” effectively comparing the union campaign to the AIDS crisis.

Housing Works has also described the union as undermining the organization’s mission. A March 9 all-staff email from King asked, “If people are willing to tear down Housing Works to get a union, are they really trying to improve Housing Works and better fulfill our mission?”

Retaliatory firings

Postponing the election at a time when no one knows when such things will resume is a useful employer strategy. But Housing Works is also taking advantage of this time to affect any future vote by laying off core committee members and union supporters, using the pandemic as cover.

Rebecca, a case manager since 2018, and one of the founders of the organizing campaign, was terminated last week. “I got a call from my Borough Director saying I was being furloughed, and I asked what that means, and what it looks like for my clients and for the program, and she couldn’t answer any of my questions. She said just wait for a call or email.” That evening, Rebecca got a letter informing her that “due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s severe impact on our organization… your position must be eliminated and you will be permanently laid off effective March 30, 2020.” When she asked for clarification whether she was being furloughed or terminated, no one replied.

Adrian, a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor, had a similar experience. They were informed by a supervisor that they would be temporarily laid off. Later in the day, Adrian received an email saying they were furloughed. “Then I got an email later in the day saying ‘we’re rescinding that letter. It’s a permanent layoff. We’re eliminating your position.’”

Adrian, too, was an active union member. When the campaign went public in August, “I signed a card right away. I started attending meetings. I was part of the delegation that walked out on October 29” referring to a planned union action that later gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall. At a town hall, “I was one of only two staff that spoke up and brought up concerns.” On March 29, they sent an email questioning Housing Works’ handling of staff and client safety during the COVID-19 crisis. “I was let go two days after I sent that letter.”

It is not surprising for there to be furloughs and layoffs during the intense economic contraction associated with the coronavirus. However, workers have noted that so far, these do not track program needs or workers’ ability to work from home. “My department is the biggest money-maker,” says Rebecca. “It’s funded through Medicaid. Everything we do, we bill Medicaid. Whether we have provided a service to a client, after we have done a bunch of different steps, we get to bill Medicaid.” It’s also possible for staff to do the work from home, contacting clients remotely and connecting them with services. For her, it’s clear the firings were strategic. “There are hundreds of people working in that department, but only a handful have been laid off, including me, and a woman who was eight months pregnant who was about to go on maternity leave.”

There is more evidence the layoffs weren’t necessary, Rebecca says, in that “In less than 24 hours, they posted a LinkedIn listing for my exact position.”

Meanwhile, Adrian points out, not all workers are being offered opportunities for redeployment within the organization. Caseworker positions for a new initiative in partnership with by the Department of Homeless Services to find temporary shelter for unhoused people sick with COVID-19 have been offered to furloughed retail staff. “Why wouldn’t you tap people with those [caseworker] credentials?” Adrian asks.

The recent layoffs fit a larger pattern of Housing Works eliminating union supporters. In 2019, workers in the Manhattan bookstore café begin taking action, circulating petitions and requesting meetings with management. In response, many of those workers were laid off or fired, under the pretext of “restructuring.”

A reentry program for the incarcerated had a handful of very active union committee members. Housing Works eliminated them by informing staff that the organization would not be renewing its contract with the Department of Corrections. Workers were terminated in February even though the program had funding through June.

For Housing Works — this nonprofit apparently dedicated to social justice — the COVID-19 crisis appears to be a flag of convenience for retaliatory firings and avoiding Unfair Labor Practice complaints at an already crippled NLRB.

No care for staff

In his March 3 email, CEO King mused that when Housing Works was founded during the AIDS crisis, “We quickly recognized that we couldn’t take care of the people we had organized to serve if we didn’t take care of each other.” Several current and former staff have expressed a deep concern about the organization’s lack of safety precautions during the pandemic — failing to provide adequate PPE to those still meeting clients face-to-face, and offering inadequate sick time or accommodation of work-from-home arrangements.

One educator, fearful of being laid off but “terrified” of catching the coronavirus in light of his preexisting health conditions, noted that “When I sit in on these weekly meetings, [President] Matt Bernardo is constantly talking about how this is impacting the agency financially. You need to put the sanctity of life over dollars.” Still expected to come into the office last week, he began using his limited paid time off in order to stay home.

“I understand we provide essential services. And I understand we have a client caseload we have to address every day. What good is it going to do if we have staff members who are potentially afflicted with this passing it on to clients?” he asks. “And the reverse is true. A lot of the staff members who work there have HIV, have compromised immune systems.”

Of course, staff who have been laid off are also losing their continued health benefits. “My [termination] letter also said ‘your health insurance coverage ends March 31,’ which was the following day,” says Rebecca. “They said ‘you are eligible for COBRA, we’ll send you the paperwork.’ They did not. Then they terminated my access to work email, so I couldn’t reply.”

The (unnamed) social worker – still employed – seemed no less frustrated. “They’re sending out these weird all-staff emails about respectability and coming together as a community but then laying people off and cutting off their benefits the next day in the middle of a pandemic.”