NEW YORK, N.Y.— Like most businesses in travel, airline caterer DO & CO laid off workers when the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020. United Food And Commercial Workers Local 2013 negotiated a deal that employees recalled within three months would keep all their seniority and benefits, and later got that extended to seven months.
Workers recalled after that were out of luck. The company brought them back as new hires, deleting all the seniority and vacation time they had previously earned.
“I got recalled, and I started as a new employee,” Bibi, an equipment packer who preferred not to give her last name, told LaborPress during a protest May 26 by about 35 workers and supporters outside a company facility near John F. Kennedy International Airport. “I lost five years. Since 2015, I was here.”
The biggest loss, she said, was that she had enough time on the job to get three weeks vacation each year. Now, she’ll have to work another year to get back to one week.
“It wasn’t our fault, the pandemic,” she says.
The more than 500 workers at the facility, in an industrial area of road-sand piles and hotels converted into homeless shelters wedged between the airport and the Belt Parkway, were laid off early in the pandemic, according to the UFCW. Some were recalled before the agreement was expired, but so far, 43 workers have been stripped of their seniority, says Local 2013 field director Francine Streich, as will others recalled in the future.
“I feel betrayed. I feel robbed,” Andrés Herrera told the rally.
Originally a chef, he had worked at DO & CO since 2018. He turned down the company’s initial recall, for him to come back as a cleaner, but took the second, as a packer, he told LaborPress. He’s making about the same as he was before the pandemic, $18.25 an hour, but lost the annual week of vacation he’d earned.
“Let DO & CO know that what they’re doing is a no-no,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. “The Borough of Queens believes you shouldn’t lose vacation days.”
“Nobody could’ve imagined just how long the impact on this pandemic would have on the country and the world,” Local 2013 President Louis Mark Carotenuto said in a statement. “DO & CO needs to restore the SENIORITY of each and every recalled worker who was laid off as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic and they need to do so NOW!”
The company, he added, was doing the recall “in a way that not only takes advantage of these workers — it kicks them while they’re down!”
DO & CO, a multinational catering company based in Vienna, Austria, argues that its actions were perfectly legal, because the seven-month recall agreement had expired.
“DO & CO and UFCW Local 2013 are parties to a valid collective bargaining agreement (CBA),” Alexander Kappner, corporate counsel in the company’s Los Angeles office, said in a statement to LaborPress. “The CBA specifies in detail under what conditions an employee preserves or loses seniority, and what the eligibility requirements for benefits are…. To the extent the organized workforce seeks changes to the CBA, DO & CO representatives remain available for bargaining over such changes.”
The company, he said, was “not aware of any UFCW Local 2013 rally or picketing.”
Management at the Queens site certainly was aware, however. The rally was scheduled to start at the 2:30 p.m. shift change, when the morning workers got out — but supervisors kept them working. Borough President Richards went into the facility to find out what was going on and was told no manager was on duty.
When the rally ended at 3:30, the morning-shift workers were still confined inside.
Some workers who had been recalled while the agreement was in effect didn’t know that their coworkers had lost seniority and benefits. “Oh man…,” lamented one man, a gauzy hair covering enveloping his whole head except for his eyes and nose. “People have experience. They put their lives in here.”
State Senator James Sanders and Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson (D-Queens) plan to introduce legislation that would require employers who recall laid-off workers to preserve their seniority and benefits, according to staffers who attended the rally.
“If we stand together and have good communication, we will get what we are asking for,” shop steward Pedro Garcia said.