04.22.2011 – Boathouse Labor Rally Draws Public Officials – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Boathouse labor rally draws public officials

Workers claiming they were illegally fired from the Loeb Memorial Boathouse restaurant rallied Thursday; the city’s Parks Department has so far stayed out of the fray.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
April 22, 2011 3:46 p.m
Workers who claim they were illegally fired from the Loeb Memorial Boathouse restaurant in Central Park publicly aired their grievances at a union rally adjacent to the restaurant on Thursday, backed up by a chorus of pro-union City Council members and union officials. So far, though, the popular concession’s landlord–the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation—has stayed largely out of the fray.

The Parks Department responded Friday to repeated requests for comment with a written statement.

“The city is not party to this disagreement which is between a labor union and a restaurant operator with a concession to operate at Central Park,” read the statement. “The concessionaire has met all of his obligations to the city under the agreement.”

The rally was the latest turn of events in an intensifying dispute. The New York Hotel Trades Council is representing the group of workers, who said the concession’s operator, Dean Poll, and his managers systematically mistreated workers on the basis of race and sex, stole tips from servers, and improperly fired 14 banquet employees when they attempted to join the Local 6 union chapter in January of this year.

Yasser Nijim, one of the fired employees attending the rally on Thursday, said he worked at the Boathouse for three years, mostly full-time. He said when he and many other employees joined the Local 6 union committee in June of 2010, “management started bribing us.”

“They gave us a raise. They offered us health insurance that we couldn’t afford,” said Mr. Nijim. When he persisted in advocating for the union, he said, his hours were changed drastically. “We’d leave at three in the morning, come back at eight in the morning–that kind of thing,” he said.

Finally, in January, he was terminated along with 13 other union supporters. “It was because we supported the union,” said Mr. Nijim.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, widely considered to be a likely candidate for mayor in 2012, said she was “incredibly concerned and outraged” over the employee reports.

“Operating a business in Central Park is not a right, it’s a privilege,” she said. “The thing about a privilege is that it can be given, and it can be taken away.”

David Weissman, legal counsel for the Boathouse, disputes the charges.
“Boathouse Management has investigated these claims and found that there is no basis for any of them,” Mr. Weissman said via email Friday. He said allegations of union-busting were “untrue” and that claims of racial and sexual harassment were “totally false.”

The union has filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB said through a spokeswoman Friday that the complaints were “under review.”

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the district the Boathouse is located in and also chairs the City Council Parks and Recreation Committee, called on the Parks Department to do more to pressure Mr. Poll to comply with his contract. She said she “wasn’t really pleased with the response of the [Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe] so far.”

“I interpreted his response as a little dismissive,” she said. “I would hope that we’d have a strong partnership with the Parks Department and this administration on these concessions.”

Mr. Weissman said Mr. Poll was in “constant contact” with the Parks Department.

“Not one of the elected officials who spoke out at yesterday’s rally has ever inquired as to any of these claims,” said Mr. Weisman. “The Boathouse welcomes the opportunity to speak with them about any concerns they might have.”

According to the Parks Department website, the city’s contract with Mr. Poll extends until Dec. 31, 2021.

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04.21.2011 – Union Plans Rally Today at Central Park Boathouse – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Union plans rally today at Boathouse

The hotel workers union intends to rally Thursday at the Boathouse in Central Park to protest the firing of several employees.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
April 21, 2011 3:52 p.m.
 Updated: April 21, 2011 4:49 p.m.

A long dispute between the New York Hotel Trades Council and restaurateur Dean Poll, the licensed operator of the city-owned Loeb Central Park Boathouse restaurant, is about to take a public turn.

The hospitality workers union, which has been working to organize the Boathouse workers, will hold a rally Thursday outside of the restaurant on the west side of Central Park to protest Mr. Poll’s January firing of 16 banquet employees. The union says Mr. Poll and his management staff fired the 14 of the workers in retaliation for their support of a union drive.

Mr. Poll’s group issued a statement through a spokesman in response to the planned rally.

“Today’s rally by Local 6 is yet another example of the union attempting to force its will on the employees of the Boathouse while at the same time depriving them of their right to vote. If the employees of the Boathouse want union representation, they are entitled to decide that for themselves by way of a secret ballot election,” read the statement.

But a spokesman for the union said Mr. Poll’s actions were “clear cut.”

“Workers tried to unionize, and they fired 16 people,” said the spokesman, adding that several of the fired workers would be speaking at Thursday’s rally.

The workers did indeed file for an election in January. But they argue that Mr. Poll’s actions make a fair election impossible. And they’re hoping the National Labor Relations Board will agree and compel Mr. Poll to bargain with the union.

In its online newsletter, the New York Hotel Worker’s Union said it had also filed “numerous unfair labor practice charges” against Mr. Poll with the National Labor Relations Board.

But the spokesman said today that National Labor Relations Board decision could take years, and the union rally was an attempt to “get the Parks Department to crack down on this now.”

In a separate statement, the Boathouse disputed that the firings had any connection to union organizing, calling the charges “frivolous” and saying that only 14 workers had been let go “because the Boathouse opted to have a full-time staff and reduced the employees based upon seniority.”

“The workers who were let go were on-call, part-time banquet staff, some of whom worked as little one to two days a week and 300 hours a year,” continued the statement, noting that since January, two of the employees had been hired back as seasonal workers.

The spokesman said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer would attend the rally, but their offices could not immediately confirm those plans. The rally is slated to begin at 4:30 p.m.

04.12.2011 – NY, NY: It’s a Government Town – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NY, NY: It’s a government town

Bronx is up, Battery’s down, public jobs all over the ground: The six largest employers in NYC are government entities, not private enterprises, according to Crain’s ranking of top employers.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
April 12, 2011 1:50 p.m.

Albany and Washington, D.C., are known as government towns. Maybe New York City should be, too: The six largest employers here are government entities, according to Crain’s latest ranking of the city’s top employers.

The Crain’s list shows that New York City’s top employer is the city itself, with 152,836 full-time employees in 2010, not including the Department of Education, which is second on the list, with 121,255 employees last year.

Ranking third, with 66,240 employees, is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, even though it shrunk its New York area workforce by 5% last year, more than any government employer in the city.

Rounding out the Top 6 here are the U.S. government (with 52,800 federal workers in the city), the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. (36,964 employees at such public institutions as Bellevue and King’s County hospitals) and the state of New York (with 26,500 workers in the five boroughs).

The government employers on the Crain’s list of the city’s 40 largest employers together represented 426,408 full-time or full-time equivalent positions—or half of all the local employees counted on the entire list.

In addition, several of the rest of the Top 40 employers are heavily dependent on government funding, including the City University of New York and large private hospitals that survive on Medicaid and Medicare payments.

New York City’s reliance on government work adds an intriguing local economic layer to some of the political debates over public-sector spending in Washington and Albany these past few years.

The recently passed state budget, for instance, calls for $450 million in state workforce cost reductions for the fiscal year that began April 1. If the costs cuts can’t be negotiated with public worker unions, then the state might have to lay off as many as 9,800 employees over the next 12 months.

“We could be seeing the loss of thousands of middle-income jobs in New York City,” said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank based in New York.

Cutbacks in public sector jobs could “act as a brake on recovery,” Mr. Parrott warned, adding that “the reduction in state government contracts for social services, senior services and child welfare that go to non-profit organizations are [also] likely to mean job cutbacks in the private sector as well.”

E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, downplays such dire talk. The new state budget introduced “not so much cuts as non-growth,” he said, noting that the city’s 100,000-plus job losses during the Great Recession makes 9,800 potential state layoffs a “rounding error.”

“This won’t affect the city at all,” Mr. McMahon said. “The [government] layoffs in the city have to do mostly with people retiring or accepting early retirement.”

The Crain’s survey of top employers found that each of the six public-sector employers reported declines in full-time staff over the last year, from a 2.6% drop in city government ranks to the 5% hit at the MTA.

Public employees weren’t the only ones to feel the economy’s sting, of course. Insurer American International Group Inc., media giant Time Warner and phone and cable company Verizon Communications all posted double-digit job losses last year, even as the local economy began recovering from the impact of the global financial crisis.

And some employers even grew their New York City workforces in 2010.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. eclipsed Citigroup Inc. last year to become the Big Apple’s largest private-sector employer. J.P. Morgan reported a 13% increase in employees in the five boroughs, to 24,927 at the end of 2010 from 22,066 at the end of 2009. Meantime, Citigroup held steady with a slight 0.2% rise, to 24,442 last year from 24,393 in 2009.

Other big gainers last year include media company Bloomberg LP, where local jobs grew by 8.6%, and private hospitals North Shore-LIJ Health System (up 7.4%) and NYU-Langone Medical Center (6.3%).

03.24.2011 – NYC Unemployment Rate Hovers at 8.9% – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

NYC unemployment rate hovers at 8.9%

The city has fared slightly better than the rest of New York state for employment, according to a state Department of Labor analyst.

By Benjamin J. Spencer

March 24, 2011 3:40 p.m.

Private employment in New York City rose 0.4% from January to February, but the overall city unemployment rate remained virtually unchanged from January at 8.9%, according to a state analysis of employment data released Thursday.

“The city has actually been doing somewhat better than the rest of the state over the year,” said James Brown, the New York City analyst for the state labor department. The state’s unemployment rate also stayed steady from January to February, at 8.2%, according to seasonally adjusted figures released by the department.

Despite the stagnation in employment rate and a labor market that is “still somewhat volatile,” Mr. Brown sees the new city numbers as a positive sign. “This is one of the few months we haven’t had a drop,” he said. Mr. Brown also said private city employment rose 1.6% over the past year, compared with a state rise of 1.2%.

The professional and business services sectors led the citywide gains, said Mr. Brown. “We’ve also had a nice recovery on Wall Street,” he said, though jobs there are still “way down” compared to the peak in 2008.

Still, there’s been “very little change” in companies’ willingness to hire, says Steve Schwartz, a recruiter with MRINetwork Management Recruiters of Gramercy, a local franchise of Philadelphia-based MRINetwork

“Companies are talking. They are calling in and asking for candidates to fill positions,” Mr. Schwartz said. But when push comes to shove, he said companies have been reluctant to hire, and the hiring process—a four- to six-week affair 20 years ago—has grown significantly as companies take longer to select a candidate.

“It’s not unusual for us to be chasing our tails for three, four, five months,” he said.

“Companies are under the perception that there are an abundance of people to choose from.”

In February, the city’s largest job gains were in retail trade and accounting, while the biggest losses were in the construction industry, likely due to the month’s extreme weather, said Barbara Byrne Denham, chief economist at real estate services firm Eastern Consolidated, which produces a report of seasonally adjusted employment figures.

“New York City remains on a much more solid footing [than the rest of the country] when you look at job growth in retail, restaurants, finance and health services,” Ms. Denham said.

But a nominal recovery in financial services like commercial banking and securities has been somewhat offset by “volatility” in hiring for other sectors, she said. The Eastern Consolidated report noted an increase of 2,100 local government jobs in February—a net gain of 500 public sector jobs for the year so far.
“All these dire warnings that state and local governments are losing all these jobs, and then all of a sudden we have this 2,100 job increase,” said Ms. Denham. “Ironic, when the city is bracing for cuts.”

Mr. Schwartz said the current reluctance for companies to hire has been exacerbated by a more cautious workforce battered by the down economy. He said candidates who are already gainfully employed are more reluctant than ever to chance a move—even to a better-paying position—for fear that they will be the first ones out the door in a round of lay-offs.

For his part, Mr. Schwartz said he hopes his corporate clients will lighten up on the hiring a bit. “I’m advising them not to sit on the fence, that there is not an infinite supply of candidates out there,” he said.

03.07.2011 – City Aids Entrepreneurial Immigrants – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

City aids entrepreneurial immigrants

New York City to start offering its free small business courses in Chinese, Korean and Russian; Latino and Asian immigrants startups grew the fastest, one study shows.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
March 7, 2011 12:05 p.m.
Entrepreneurial immigrants will soon be able to take the city’s free small business courses in Chinese, Korean and Russian, thanks to a new city initiative unveiled last week.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the plan as part of three new programs aimed at aiding New York’s immigrant entrepreneurs. The Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, in conjunction with the city’s Economic Development Corp. and Department of Small Business Services, are funding the programs.

The language component will begin “immediately” with the creation of a pilot program to translate the city’s free small business courses into Chinese, Korean, and Russian, according to EDC spokesman Kyle Sklerov. Existing Spanish language courses will also be expanded.

The initiative represents a step forward for immigrant businesses, according to Yanki Tshering, executive director of the Business Center for New Americans, a New York City-based nonprofit that aids immigrant entrepreneurs.

“It’s definitely been a long time in coming,” said Ms. Tshering. Historically, she said, there has been “a lack of awareness of the need for support for immigrant business, especially considering how progressive New York City is and the high number of immigrants that are here.”

The mayor’s actions come at a time when the percentage of new immigrant entrepreneurs soared nationwide. The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, which tracks monthly business creation, found that for 2010, an average of 620 out of 100,000 immigrants, or 0.6%, started a new business monthly, compared to only 280 out of 100,000, or 0.3%, for native-born citizens.

That gap is widening. While business creation by immigrants rose sharply from 2009 to 2010, the rate started native-born Americans dropped. The index culled data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to come up with the figures.

Latino and Asian immigrant business startups grew the fastest, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

“The mayor is committed to these groups,” Mr. Sklerov said. “They will be a huge part of New York’s future.” Mr. Sklerov cited a 2007 Center for an Urban Future study finding that even back in 2000, immigrants made up 49% of all self-employed workers in the city. 2010 U.S. Census statistics won’t be available until later this year.

Despite their role in the local small business community, immigrants in NYC face daunting barriers, such as access to credit, Mr. Sklerov said. The city and the Deutsche Bank foundation will split the costs for a competition that will award $25,000 each to five city nonprofits that create plans to aid immigrant entrepreneurs. The nonprofit deemed to have the best plan to promote immigrant startups at the end of a pilot period will be awarded an additional $100,000.

Mr. Sklerov said the city will begin accepting plan submissions from nonprofits sometime this summer and will pick the ultimate winner by next year. The main requirement of a good plan, he said, will be inclusiveness. “We live in a large city,” he said. “We’re looking for something that’s going to work for immigrants everywhere in New York.”

The Economic Development Corp. and Department of Small Business Services are working with Baruch College, the Pratt Center for Community Development and the South Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp. to plan a business expo for local immigrant-run food manufacturing businesses. Baruch College’s Newman Conference Center in Manhattan will host the expo on May 25.

Ms. Tshering said the Business Center for New Americans was “very excited” about the initiatives. “We will definitely participate in the competition,” she said, noting that Deutsche Bank representatives keen on funding immigrant business had already contacted her organization.

The biggest step forward in the initiatives will be to give immigrant business owners more access to information, Ms. Tschering said. “And I think the mayor sincerely means that.”

02.17.2011 – Walmart Foes Testify Before City Council – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Walmart foes testify before City Council

Anti-Walmart advocates and ex-employees seeking to block the entry of the world’s largest retailers into New York City air allegations of widespread labor abuses.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
February 17, 2011 3:49 p.m

Updated: February 17, 2011 6:15 p.m

Lawyers, advocates and former Walmart employees testified against the potential entry of the mega-retailer into the five boroughs before three committees of the City Council Thursday. As expected, their testimony was almost unanimously critical of the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s conduct.

Several witnesses presented testimony, based on workers’ lawsuits, of what they charged were widespread labor abuses built into Walmart’s corporate structure. The allegations spanned the country and ranged from Walmart forcing employees to work extra hours with no pay, to repeated instances of management retribution against workers who tried to unionize.

The comments of Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed negative, with the exception of Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich, who said he supported the retailer’s entry into the city to combat rampant unemployment in his district.

“In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” said Mr. Ulrich, referring to various civil action suits pending against Walmart, many of which allege labor, civil rights and human rights violations on a company-wide scale.

Former Walmart grocery manager Sandra Carpenter said when she attempted to educate “immigrant employees not familiar with the rights that we are supposed to have in this country,” the managers at her store engaged in retribution by forcing her to work off the clock for up to two hours a day. She estimates she lost more than $4,000 in overtime payments.

Attorney Claude Leblanc, who represents 190 Walmart workers in Jonquiere, Quebec, said that when his clients attempted to unionize, Walmart shut the store down and fired everyone.

“This kind of closure, within the law of the province of Quebec, is illegal,” said Mr. Leblanc, whose clients won damages from the retailer.

The comments of City Council members themselves on Walmart also skewed overwhelmingly negative.

“No one would argue with the desire to seek out lower prices,” said Deborah Rose, Council chair of the Committee on Civil Rights. “But often, a store’s low prices come with a high price for workers.”

“If you don’t adhere to the standards of this city, you will not reap its benefits,” added Julissa Fererras, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues for the Council.

But Mr. Ulrich asserted that it was “not the government’s job” to block private enterprise.

“People need jobs,” said Mr. Ulrich, adding that if Walmart were allowed into his district, people would be “lined up around the block” with applications.

For the second hearing in a row, Walmart refused to send representatives to address the Council. Instead they issued a statement while hearings were still underway, rebutting many of the allegations of the panels.

In a press statement titled “Setting the Record Straight on Today’s City Council Meeting,” the company specifically countered the claim made by Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, among others, that Walmart’s entry into New York would devastate the local economy by driving small business away and lowering the area’s wages and benefits.

The company cited a 2005 paper by economist Jason Furman, now an adviser to the Obama administration, that concluded “the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector.”

The release also countered allegations of wage theft and other labor abuses.

Thursday’s hearing was the second City Council meeting in a month to deal with the controversy over Walmart’s interest in New York City locations such as Queens’ Jamaica Bay and Willet’s Point.

01.21.2011 – Slideshow – NYC Job Sectors: Growing and Slowing – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Job sectors: growing and slowing

By Benjamin J Spencer

Photography by Buck Ennis