‘Absolutely outrageous’: Elected officials join Vernon Tower tenants, workers to protest firing of luxury building’s staff

vernon tower 32bj
Photo courtesy of 32BJ

Following the firing of six essential workers at Vernon Tower, tenants and local elected officials stood with workers to call for the luxury building’s owners to rehire the workers and offer them better wages on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

State Senator Michael Gianaris and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer joined workers and residents as the crowd chanted, “Bring back our staff!” at 11-08 31st Dr. in Astoria.

Six employees — four door attendants and two porters — at Vernon Tower were laid off on Oct. 16. The building employed seven workers in total before the layoffs. The only worker in the building that was not fired immediately was the superintendent, who was later replaced by a new super.

The workers began organizing earlier this year to join SEIU 32BJ, the largest property service workers union in the country, to fight for health benefits, back payment of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and a union contract.

“We worked for this building without proper compensation and when it came to doing the right thing, Excel Development Group and Vernon Tower did the exact opposite,” said Osman Ak, a doorman at Vernon Tower who was fired in October. “We’re just a bunch of guys trying to make a living and Excel destroyed the fabric of the community we worked hard to build.”

Photo courtesy of 32BJ

Shortly after the workers were promised that their demands would be met, building owner Excel Development Group fired all door attendants and porters at the building.

In turn, the workers have filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that they were fired in retaliation for organizing to join a union.

“It is unacceptable that as soon as these workers stood up for themselves, they were fired without regard for the importance of their sacrifice during the pandemic,” said Gianaris. “For the sake of these workers as well as the tenants who rely on them, this injustice must be reversed.”

The building, which receives over $5 million a year in 421a tax benefits and has 21 affordable units for households with incomes between $30,000 and $60,000 a year, is required by law to pay the prevailing wage to its workers. However, building staff claim that they were underpaid by tens of thousands of dollars.

After the workers were fired, residents were told that building owners planned to reduce cleaning services and replace all door attendants with a “virtual doorman” intercom system. Some residents said they are frustrated about what they say are unwarranted cuts in services.

The majority of the 103-unit rental building have signed a petition asking Excel to reinstate workers.

“I didn’t sign up for a building that doesn’t have a doorman. I didn’t sign up to pay a premium for services I’m not receiving, and I sure didn’t sign up to watch you mistreat our essential workers during a pandemic,” said Alvarez Santiago, a tenant at the building. “You’ve let us down and along the way, you’ve let down the people who were our main supporters – our building staff. We are not afraid to use our rent dollars somewhere else.”

The building has not started conversations about rehiring nor have they reached out to the workers, according to a 32BJ spokesperson. They added that about 30, out of 75 units that are currently occupied are planning to hold out rent until the building’s owners answer their calls.

Photo courtesy of 32BJ
Photo courtesy of 32BJ

Residents also say that the building owners have reduced services in violation of state regulations, and plan to apply for rent reductions from state housing agency Homes and Community Renewal (HCR).

“It is absolutely outrageous what’s happened here,” said Van Bramer. “This is a lose-lose situation, where both the essential building workers and the residents are getting the short end of the stick due to the careless actions of building owners and developers. Vernon Towers and Excel must immediately reinstate their workers, listen to their demands and do right by tenants who pay them rent every month.”

Vernon Tower did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.