After a building porter at a Jersey City building died of COVID-19 complications last weekend, it was a breaking point for Tunde Bello, a porter who works at an Upper West Side building.
Bello was among the 10 of the Planned Companies workers — who work in Manhattan at The Chamberlain on West 87th Street and a Hell's Kitchen building on West 52nd Street — who staged a walkout and 24-hour strike on Thursday.
When he heard of the Jersey City worker's death, he was scared.
"That kind of hit me," Bello told reporters during a press call. "They're just going to [work] to provide for their families and this is what happens."
In addition to the Manhattan buildings, Planned Companies workers at other buildings in New Jersey also walked out for the strike on Thursday. Workers say the company has not provided adequate personal protective equipment—like masks and gloves—and they have had difficulty accessing proper paid time off during the coronavirus pandemic. Workers have been organizing a union for months with service workers union SEIU 32BJ, but the pandemic has only exacerbated their fear and frustrations.
"I'm just afraid for everybody and my staff, including the residents, which we all love—they all treat us with all the respect in the world," said Bello, who works at the West 87th Street building. "The supplies [are] very limited, it's very limited. They want us to use a mask for three days—kind of like sanitize the masks. With the gloves, they want us to wear gloves and put Purell gel on our gloves inside and outside to save the gloves."
"We have Fedex, UPS, Fresh Direct—these people are coming in everyday. They're not too far from the doorman. The doorman has to touch the packages. We don't have Lysol to spray the boxes," he added.
"There's just way too much going on that is unacceptable," said Bello, who commutes from Coney Island where he says the trains are often crowded with other essential workers.
32BJ confirmed the Jersey City porter's death, saying he died April 11th due to COVID-19 complications. His name is being withheld for privacy reasons.
Coworkers and family have told the union he hadn't felt well since April 4th but continued to work at a building known as The Beacon, where Planned has employees, until he was instructed to go home on April 9th.
Workers were quarantined, but only provided paid time off after pressuring their employer to do so, the union says.
The Jersey City workers' experience echoes what another concierge employee on West 87th Street, Andre Kelly, says he faced.
Kelly and his wife were quarantined after his wife came into contact with someone who had the virus. He requested paid time off for the two-week quarantine period, but was at first told he wouldn't be paid.
"Literally, two weeks straight, I'm calling them about, 'Am I going to get paid?' Because now I'm panicking," Kelly said. When he returned, a manager said he'd get paid for the two weeks of quarantine, but only after days of pressing his employer.
In response to questions about the Jersey City porter who died, Planned Companies spokesperson Ben Martin said: "What a shameful and lamentable exploitation by the union of the death of a 75-year-old man from COVID-19."
A worker, Bello, had told reporters of the death during a press call, saying his passing had scared him and became the final push before joining workers on the walkout.
"We are deeply saddened by his passing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family," the Planned spokesperson Martin added.
Martin said the union "continues to use organizational bullying as an unjust effort to tarnish the reputation of the company and our dedicated employees."
"We have been working hand in hand with our employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic since its onset," Martin said. "Our employee[s] remain our priority and we have ensured that our employees have the proper personal protective equipment based on their job functions. Additionally, we are continually sourcing additional supplies to ensure they remain protected throughout the course of the emergency. Furthermore, Planned Companies' executive leadership is in the final stages of establishing an emergency relief fund to support employees that have been deeply affected."
Martin said that SEIU 32BJ is using "this health emergency to proliferate an agenda of operational disruption and muscle-flexing in the name of political and financial gain." He added, feedback from building owners and tenants is "outstanding."
Martin did not detail the personal protective equipment provided to workers and said the company follows state and federal regulations for paid sick time off, though did not specify the company's exact policy. The company services buildings across the country.
The company has a history of poor worker treatment. At The Chamberlain, Kelly says he was offered a $50 check after being discouraged from supporting the union efforts. In 2019, the company settled for $873,000 in back wages for office cleaners in Lower Manhattan, according to 32BJ. In Williamsburg, workers alleged back in 2018 they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages for being underpaid; that building at 282 South Fifth Street is among three being investigated by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, per the union.