Frontline workers serving NYC’s most vulnerable still lack hazard pay from city and state

Jericho Project along with other supportive housing networks in NYC were mentioned in an article by Queens Eagle. You can view it on their website here. 

By David Brand, Queens Eagle

Melvennis Richardson walks to work most days, leaving her Harlem home and cutting through Central Park to get to a transitional residence for homeless New Yorkers on the Upper West Side.

Richardson is a case manager for adults with mental illness, but lately she’s been a front desk clerk and an operations manager, too. Sometimes she works the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift to make sure residents are safe and healthy during the coronavirus crisis.

People with mental illness are “always getting pushed aside,” said Richardson, who has worked in social service for about 20 years. “They’re always on the back burner”

Nonprofit leaders, including her organization Urban Pathways, say frontline workers like Richardson are also getting pushed aside. Despite signaling the need to boost wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city and state have not committed to actually funding a pay increase for staff who perform vital services for New Yorkers in need.

“We talk about essential workers, but we are right there with our hospitals, police and firemen,” Richardson said.

Urban Pathways has dipped into its reserves and tapped private funders to boost pay by 20 percent for the case managers, maintenance staff, front desk clerks and cooks who show up for work each day. But there’s no guarantee that the organization — or any service provider stepping up for employees — will ever be reimbursed.

The frontline workers “are the ones making sure the building is safe and secure,” said Urban Pathways CEO Fred Shack. “They also happen to be the lowest paid workers in the organization, and they’re mostly women and people of color putting themselves and their families at risk of exposure.”

“We’re pushing the city and state to provide reimbursements,” Shack added.

The state has so far been reluctant to provide hazard pay or incentive pay to frontline employees at social service organizations, despite calls from agency leaders and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo himself.

Cuomo, however, has put the responsibility on the federal government, calling for a compensation fund similar to the 9/11 Victims Fund created by Congress.

“The reality is, New York State is facing a $13.3 billion drop in revenue, and in the absence of federal funding to offset this loss, we are preparing a plan to reduce state spending by $10.1 billion,” said New York State Division of Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott. “Any category where we don’t reduce spending will simply mean deeper cuts in another area.”

City agencies have said they will fund incentive pay for workers at contracted service organizations, but have yet to follow through. The Mayor’s Office, Department of Homeless Services and the Office of Management and Budget did not provide a response for this story.

“They have agreed in word, but not in deed. And it’s not done,” said Homeless Services United Executive Director Catherine Trapani. “Some providers who took the city’s word for it are going deeper into debt payroll after payroll.”

The organizations that come up with the extra cash for on-site workers do so at the potential expense of services down the road, Trapani said. A study published Tuesday by the Center for an Urban Future found that nearly every nonprofit surveyed reported major unanticipated operating costs, with six of 24 organizations already reporting losses of more than $1 million.

“The big thing we’re doing is being very careful and tracking all the additional pay,” said Paul Freitag, the executive director of the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, or WSFSSH. “It’s our goal that we will be reimbursed for that.”

Freitag said many essential workers, like front desk clerks and maintenance staff at WSFSSH’s senior residences, make little more than minimum wage. Though they could receive a comparable income from unemployment assistance, they continue to show up for work each day.

“It’s challenging for them to make ends meet,” he said. “We need everyone in our buildings to qualify for incentive pay.”

Front desk staff, for example, serve as the eyes and ears of supportive housing sites, which provide independent apartments with on-site services for formerly homeless New Yorker. Freitag said they are also the first line of defense. Just before Freitag talked with the Eagle, a front desk worker emailed him to say she had stopped a delivery worker from entering the building without a mask, he said.

Another supportive housing organization, Jericho Project, has also managed to boost salaries for on-site staff during the coronavirus crisis, despite the toll on the budget. Jericho Project administrators have led calls for hazard pay for all nonprofit frontline workers.

Jose Lebron, a superintendent at a Jericho building in the Bronx, said the money has gone a long way to shoring up essential workers, while also acknowledging the sacrifices that they make.

“We’re already in a difficult situation dealing with the possibility of contracting this thing while we’re working,” Lebron said. “It’s just a little something that not only helps during a situation so you can provide for your family, but it lifts your spirits.”

Lebron and his crew have built partitions to promote social distancing in the building and routinely deep-clean the hallways and common spaces throughout the site. Their efforts are driven by a commitment to helping others, he said.

“The country actually needs people like me and the people who work at Jericho to take up the fight for providing homes,” he said. “Most of the people I work with feel similarly. Not too many people work here just for a paycheck.”