New York, NY – The first person that Victoria Cooley, 34, a seasonal aid with the New York City Parks Department, called when she was told this week that June 30 was her last day was Joe Puleo, president of DC 37’s Local 983, which represents her and several thousand blue collar as well as skilled trades workers that work for the city.
During a phone interview, Puleo told LaborPress Cooley was one of 200 entry level workers that were slated to be terminated at the end of the fiscal year before July 1. They had originally been hired as part of Mayor de Blasio New Deal-inspired City Cleanup Corp that was funded with American Rescue Plan funds from Washington that were temporary.
Puleo’s phone blew up with other seasonal aids who were worried about their imminent termination. He was surprised. New York City Council Member Shekar Krishnan, the new chair of the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee and Speaker Adrieene Adams had gotten a no lay-off pledge from Mayor Adams.
There had been that ‘handshake’ deal.
“We were promised during the budget negotiating process that was just completed between the Mayor’s office and the Speaker’s Office that none of these people would be laid off,” Puleo said. “These people do the basic clean-up operation of the city’s parks, the bathrooms — looking out for broken glass and litter all for the minimum wage. This would have compounded the problem that we have because kids don’t want to come on these jobs because fast food actually pays more right now.”
Puleo continued, “These are people who really need the job — they’re on the razor’s edge — single parents — people who lost a job during the pandemic and because the pay is below what fast food is paying; we are not seeing anybody willing to do these jobs. Without this help we would be back to this early pandemic conditions in the parks with the garbage piled seven-feet high, broken glass in all of the kids playgrounds and filthy restrooms.”
Cooley, who has a 13-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, had been first notified on Dec. 23, that her last day would be June 30. In a phone interview Cooley said that her supervisor recently said he had received no subsequent information about her slot being extended so she was terminated.
Cooley called Puleo, whose first call was to District Council’s Executive Director Henry Garrido, who in turn called Chair Krishnan on June 29.
“I was shocked when heard from DC 37 yesterday that Parks workers were being laid off,” Krishnan told LaborPress. “Immediately, I got on the phone late at night with Parks Commissioner Susan Donoghue and this morning I made a number of calls.”
“Our Department of Parks workers are the beating hearts of our parks in New York City,” he said. “There would be no well maintained parks or green spaces, which was why I was proud to fight for a record Parks budget particularly dedicated to protecting park workers in their jobs.”
In fact, this year’s upcoming budget earmarks $624 million for parks, including 715 new permanent positions — an historic high.
After Puleo called Garrido, he called LaborPress and a few other news outlets.
By late afternoon on June 30, the 200 Department of Parks workers had gotten their jobs back until September 15.
In a statement to LaborPress, a Department of Parks spokesperson wrote “the CCC program and Play Fair funding brought us a great deal of hardworking New Yorkers to assist in the care of our parks for the past years. Thankfully, all of these staffer whose lines were to end today have been extended — we are grateful for the amazing work all of our CCC and Play Fair staff have done serving the city during the pandemic.”
The press statement was out before managers were aware of the good news.
“No worker needs that anxiety,” Krishnan told Labor Press. “The reality is the ‘handshake’ is just step one in the process of protecting workers job — after the handshake the fight has to continue.”
Cooley was relieved and says she hopes to build a career in the civil service “but first I need to get my driver’s license,” she added.
“Some people don’t realize that when you are afraid you are going to lose your job everything in your life is effected psychologically,” said Puleo. “You become depressed. You start to worry about your kids.”
Krishnan said the scrambling to make sure the 200 front line parks workers stayed in place is in part the consequence of the federal government’s failure to follow up with President Biden’s $1.8 trillion Build Back Better which was blocked by Senate Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
“We are starting to see this in everything from Parks to the Department of Education budget for schools where this temporary federal money is drying up and its not acceptable because COVID and the gross inequities it exposed are not short term issues,” Shekar said. “We should be modeling this on FDR’s New Deal which came up with permanent and sustainable programs.”