On a rainy Tuesday morning, nearly a hundred home care workers and their supporters gathered outside the gates of City Hall demanding an end to 24-hour work shifts. The group chanted “no more 24!” in anticipation of the hearing being held that day to discuss freshmen City Councilmember Christopher Marte’s bill to ban 24-hour shifts. Across the street, a smaller but equally as voracious crowd of demonstrators enthusiastically chanted “kill the bill.”
The people demonstrating against the bill were not from the home care industry but from an unlikely source, 1199SEIU, the very union that represents home care workers. Although the bill seems to have widespread support in the City Council, with at least 29 council members in support, 1199SEIU is actively trying to kill the bill before it ever comes out for a vote.
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“1199’s opposition so far to the bill has been disappointing,” said City Council Member Christopher Marte. “The exploitation in this industry is deep and lines a lot of pockets.”
Jenna Jackson, a Communication Representative for 1199SEIU, said that one of the main reasons that the union is against the bill is because the issue of 24-hour shifts should be addressed at the state level.
“They’re trying to make this a city issue when this is a state issue because a lot of the money comes from state funding so even if it goes through in the city, that’s not actually going to amend the problem,” she said. “We want every worker to get paid for every hour, we want them to be able to support themselves, but we are not going to find that by passing the bill.”
Stuart Marques, 1199’s press secretary was blunter with his feeling toward the bill.
“We want to kill it. Obviously, we’ll be happy with amending it if we have to settle for amending it, but we want to kill it outright.”
The bill, known as Intro 175, would ban 24-hour work shifts in New York City, splitting them into two distinct 12-hour shifts as well as prevent employers from assigning home care workers over 50 hours per week. That cap on hours is what concerns 1199SEIU the most. According to Marques, a city ban on 24-hour shifts would ultimately hurt home care workers in the long run.
“The issue is they’re trying to cap the hours of home care workers which will cripple them,” Marques said. “Because of the low pay they need the overtime hours in order to pay their rent. If you cap their hours, what are they going to do? They’re going to have to find other jobs.”
Yet, as the state’s largest workforce, with 130,000 home care workers in New York City alone, if passed, the bill will have a transformative effect on their lives. Home care workers such as Li Qin, a vocal advocate for the bill, say that the toll that 24-hour shifts have taken on her has been immeasurable.
“Every two hours at night I turn patients over, change diapers and help them go to the toilet, and I don’t get 5 straight hours of sleep at all,” she said. “ I’m suffering from insomnia now and need sleeping pills to sleep.”
Qin, who has been working 24 hours a day for three years, three days a week, says that her job has robbed her of any semblance of a normal life.
“Because I work 24 hours, I can’t participate in my child’s school activities, and I can’t participate in normal family activity days,” she said. “To my family, I am missing, like a stranger. Can you imagine how painful this is?”
For years, unionized home care workers have desperately attempted to reach an agreement with 1199SEIU to no avail. Just two weeks ago, home care workers launched a three-day sit-in outside 1199’s midtown headquarters hoping to schedule a meeting with union president George Gresham, only for the police to be called on the protesters.
“I think it’s crystal clear what 1199’s intent is,” said Sarah Ahn, a labor organizer with the Flushing Workers Center and member of Ain’t I A Woman Campaign. “Let employers continue to break the law… and every few years they’ll arbitrate and pay only a small percentage of what is owed to these women and block worker’s attempts to legislate a ban on 24 hours.”
Although 1199SEIU argues that any legislation concerning the home care industry must be addressed in Albany, not in City Hall, the union actively helped stall a similar bill that would have banned 24-hour shifts statewide. New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, who co-sponsored the state bill, says that it has been a challenge to reach a compromise with 1199SEIU.
“I have been actively reaching out to 1199 every step of the way, asking for a private meeting to figure this out together because they should be on the side of the workers, this could be a win-win to work with marginalized immigrant workers to feel empowered,” he said. “Instead of taking that approach, they seem to have struck a deal with management and telling immigrant workers their rights don’t matter.”
Kim’s suspicions that the union has a stuck backroom deal with home care agencies are not unfounded. In 2008, student organizers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill accused the union of organizing Aramark Corp food services workers, only to reach a deal with the company, promising to never organize in North Carolina. In 2012, SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West reached an agreement with the California Hospital Association, which represents more than 400 hospitals throughout the golden state, to support legislation that would weaken California laws that mandate safe staffing ratios.
Although the City bill has garnered widespread, bipartisan support in the council, several council members who initially supported the bill have since withdrawn support. Freshman Bronx Councilmember Amanda Farías had initially supported the bill on paper, but after discussions with 1199SEIU, she had second thoughts regarding workers’ ability to earn overtime and patient safety. Farías believes that the bill in its current form will ultimately hurt workers and that the issue should be handled at the state level. She is holding back her support but is willing to work with Councilmember Marte, the workers, and 1199SEIU to reach an agreement.
“I think a lot of times we as a city like to regulate things and demand enforcement but we don’t have the money or the bodies to do the job,” she said. “So the job won’t end up getting done and we are back in a cyclical problem.”
Sara Ahn believes that efforts to shift responsibility back to the state are futile.
“Those same people killed all initiatives to correct this problem on the state level,” she said. “I think it’s clear to all of us and all the home care workers that these are people trying very hard to keep the 24-hour going.”
As the bill stands now, it’s not entirely clear if it will pass the city council and be signed by Mayor Adams. On Tuesday, the bill was discussed by the Committee on Civil Service and Labor. The public hearing was highly contentious and lasted nearly 8 hours. Li Qin, a proud but modest woman took the opportunity to let her voice be heard.
“Nursing work is the dirtiest and most tiring work. We are humans, not machines, and we need time to rest and spend time with our families, especially children,” she said. “ I ask the city council to pass bills immediately to abolish the 24-hour work day.”