NEWARK, NJ — Shaking with anger and pain from a back injury he sustained on the job, Muta El-Amin grabbed a bullhorn and inched his wheelchair to the center of a small crowd of his fellow union members outside Newark City Hall. 

“I’ve been here for two and half years working on this garbage. They told me in 90 days, I was going to have benefits,” El-Amin, a CDL for the Newark Department of Public Works, said. “Last year, I was in the hospital with a heart condition. I talked to the man, I said, ‘I’ve got a heart condition, I need my benefits.’ It’s over a year later and I don’t have benefits.”

The 40-year-old father of two’s experience speaks to a prolonged struggle between SEIU Local 617 employees and the city of Newark, who workers claim is using the pandemic’s financial fallout as an alibi to wiggle out of fair negotiations. The union is demanding hazard pay, retroactive wage increases and protection from cuts and furloughs in 2021.

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El-Amin, who was crushed by a couch at work just the day before, claimed bullying and intimidation toward workers who advocate for benefits and fair pay is a common answer from Department of Public Works leadership. As per-diem employee, El-Amin said he does not have paid sick leave while he recovers from his injury, and was forced to return to work while still positive for COVID-19 in March. 

While the city managed to stave off furloughing city employees for the current fiscal year, officials say a $40,000,000 revenue shortfall due to COVID-19 has necessitated hiring, spending and wage freezes. Mayor Ras Baraka said in a letter to Local 617 Co-manager Megan Chambers and Business Agent Martha Rodriquez that his administration will continue to push for pay and hiring freezes to avoid laying off or furloughing existing employees. 

“This administration is working hard every day to ensure that we can avoid furloughs and layoffs,” Baraka said in the letter. “Unfortunately, we have no magic bullet. We cannot absorb millions of dollars in revenue loss, and avoid layoffs, without reasonable compromises from you.”

Baraka also criticized union leadership for encouraging members who work as administrative staff for Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, which is separate from the city, to agree to a contract freeze. 

Patrick Mack, a CDL for the Department of Public Works, said the situations are not comparable and the pandemic should not be a distraction from the fact that the contract dispute is now more than two years down the line. COVID-19 has put DPW employees into overdrive without extra pay, requiring drivers to cover more ground while staff shortages persist due to illness. 

The city is also looking to implement a night shift for the department, which Mack said needs to be negotiated. 

“We have been in negotiations, so we should be able to find a groove. We’re a budget behind. We’re out there working every day, and they didn’t give us a break,” he said. “These guys are putting their families at risk, so now that things have calmed down just a little, we just want to be compensated for that.”

El-Amin added that some kind of compromise, such as public housing for workers to help cover the rising cost of living in Newark, could go a long way for families like his. 

“We can’t afford to leave here. It’s a slap in the face that prior to COVID, (the city) hadn’t signed a contract for a year and a half, but now it’s disrespectful to ask for money,” he said. “Why didn’t they fix that before COVID? Don’t blame COVID for that, this was a problem before.”