IHA workers strike after receiving notice of job terminations

Photo by Chris Sykes Members of SEIU Workers United Local 617 protest outside the Irvington Housing Authority on Tuesday, April 5, in response to the news they will be fired by the agency they work for on Wednesday, April 20, as a cost-cutting move by Executive Director David Brown.
Photo by Chris Sykes
Members of SEIU Workers United Local 617 protest outside the Irvington Housing Authority on Tuesday, April 5, in response to the news they will be fired by the agency they work for on Wednesday, April 20, as a cost-cutting move by Executive Director David Brown.

IRVINGTON, NJ — The members of SEIU Workers United Local 617 working in the Irvington Housing Authority’s Maintenance Department that are slated to have their employment with that federally funded agency terminated as of Wednesday, April 20, organized a protest strike outside the workplace on Nye Avenue on Tuesday, April 5.

“We’re here because there’s serious financial mismanagement at the Housing Authority; it’s jeopardizing the jobs of all our 617 members who are the maintenance workers here and it’s jeopardizing the services for these residents who’ve seen cuts in services over the years,” said Megan Chambers, a member of Workers United Local 617, on Tuesday, April 5. “They lost the Security Department here. They lost about half of the maintenance workers years back. Now the plan is to eliminate the entire rest of maintenance — have no on-site maintenance staff here. Meanwhile, the executive director is taking home $202,000-plus a year. In fact, HUD has announced that his salary is $58,000 a year over the federally permissible cap. So now the Housing Authority is going to have to pay penalties, repaying $58,000 a year for every year they’ve overpaid the man, while these folks live in buildings that are in disrepair. They don’t have enough maintenance services as it is. Everybody’s suffering.”

Chambers said the 13 maintenance workers scheduled to be fired have been beneficial to the Irvington Housing Authority through the years. She said, “They do jobs, what’s called out of category, meaning they do repair work that actually could technically qualify for a higher pay, but they do it for their regular pay.”

“They work very hard; sometimes they don’t even have the supplies that they need; sometimes they have to work very hard just to find a bucket just to take care of an issue,” said Chambers. “The maintenance staff are very committed to the residents here. They have been together in this building a long time, but we need resources here and the management is just letting money slip through their fingers.”

Chambers said, “I think that the workers are being exploited and, really, it’s the residents that are losing out terribly, because they desperately need their maintenance service; they need their repairs and yet we have management” that is letting them down.

“Management floated a $5 million bond years back and is paying $390,000 a year in debt service and yet, when you come over here, you walk in and you have major capital improvements that have never been completed,” said Chambers. “Brand new elevators that have never left the ground floor. So why are $390,000 a year going down the drain in debt service when management didn’t have the ability, the capacity to properly supervise the renovations? It’s a shame and the residents are losing out and our members are losing out.”

The losses and lack of service Chambers referred to were never more evident than during the maintenance workers’ strike. Longtime residents and Irvington Housing Authority Tenants Association members, such as Delores Calloway, who actively advocate for the Irvington Housing Authority to reconsider its decision to terminate the employment of the 13 SEIU Workers United Local 617 workers slated to be fired, said there would have been more people involved in the strike on Tuesday, April 5, if the elevators many residents need, because they are wheelchair bound or otherwise unable to walk down steps in their buildings, had been functioning properly.

“A lot of people didn’t come down for the protest today because the new elevators they installed four years ago and the old elevators were down and not working,” said Irvington Housing Authority resident Delores Calloway on Tuesday, April 5. “I’m talking Donald Jones, 141 Union Ave. He’s handicapped and in a wheelchair and he’s been living here for 22 years. He’s one of the ex-presidents of our Residents Association and he said the situation with the elevators needs to be fixed permanently.”

But Calloway said that would be hard to do, now that the maintenance staff is going to be fired. Jones said the Irvington Housing Authority buildings’ longstanding elevator issues are the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to everything else that is old and in disrepair in the complex on Nye Avenue, and the fact these elevators had problems on the same day as the strike is similar to karma.

“They went down about 10 o’clock this morning,” said Jones on Tuesday, April 5. “They fixed it about 2:30. We’d like to get the new elevators fixed and the old to work. The new ones don’t work because they can’t turn them on, because they haven’t paid the contractors. I would like to see the elevators get fixed permanently, but if they say they don’t have any money to pay the maintenance people, then how can they afford anything else?”

Rasheed Willis said he’s been an Irvington Housing Authority employee working in the agency’s Maintenance Department for the last seven years alone on the shift from 3:30 p.m. to midnight, servicing boilers and maintaining buildings and grounds. He said he would also like to know how the money Brown says the agency does not have has been spent.

That’s why Willis said he, SEIU Workers United Local 617 members Caleb Bryant, Antoine Corey, Gloria Canty and others went to the Irvington Housing Authority board of commissioners’ March meeting and demanded Brown’s resignation. They also went to the Municipal Council’s meeting on Monday, March 21, to inform the governing body about what was going on at the separate and autonomous agency, and some residents believe that Mayor Tony Vauss is going to step in and have Department of Public Works employees take over for the 13 maintenance workers scheduled to have their jobs terminated on Wednesday, April 20.

Vass said that’s not true. He acknowledged the township would step in temporarily, to make sure the continuity of services for the Irvington Housing Authority tenants, if that becomes necessary, but otherwise, there was never any plan in motion to remove the current maintenance workers from their jobs so they could be replaced by others.

“I met with several of the bargaining units and I explained to them that, as mayor, I have no control over the Housing Authority; they have their executive director, they have their board of commissioners,” said Vauss on Saturday, April 2, after the funeral service for Jean Lamothe. “We already have a shared services agreement with the police. We have police stationed over in Crescent Lane and, to date, since I’ve been mayor, there’s been no murders in Crescent Lane, when it was usually a yearly thing over there, with shootings and murders. Like I said before: If the Housing Authority decides that it’s going to lay off its personnel or wants to do shared services, the obligation for us to step in and service the residents of the Housing Authority is what’s most important to me.”