The Mission of Public Service: People Over Profits

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Harlem Hospital workers Lise Wilson, right, Nate Franco and Lisa Blackett abandoned the private sector to find more meaningful work in the public sector. Photo: Clarence Elie-Rivera

By GREGORY N. HEIRES

Many DC 37 members joined the city’s workforce after spending years in the private sector.

Those interviewed by the Public Employee Press say they are now happier with their work, because it comes with union representation, good benefits, and job security.

Helping city residents instills a motivation absent in the private sector, where work was about helping their bosses make a profit.

The members say their enthusiasm for the private sector wasn’t as great because they received fewer benefits and they could be fired at the whim of a boss.

“It’s really nice to help the public — and the community as a whole,” said Dental Assistant Lisa Blackett. A dental hygienist and Local 768 shop steward, Blackett has worked at Harlem Hospital for nearly 10 years.

“A lot of the people without insurance come here and are happy to find they can get affordable dental care,” Blackett said. “Many of them are immigrants who never even received dental treatment.”

“Working here is much more fulfilling than working in a private hospital,” said Nate Franco, a social worker at Harlem Hospital. Franco is also a member of Local 768 and a shop steward.

Harlem Hospital is part of New York City’s public hospital system, whose mission is to provide comprehensive and high-quality health-care services to the poor and uninsured residents.

“Being at a public hospital allows you to treat health care as a right,” Franco said.

The experiences of Blackett and Franco are reflected in an article in the Journal of Public Administration and Research that found that 57 percent of public service workers embrace the core purpose of their job. That compares to 44 percent of the workers in the private sector.

Protection from abusive, inept bosses

Some say their enthusiasm for working in the private sector was dampened because of the instability of their jobs and the lack of union protection against abusive and incompetent managers.

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Lt. Adam Lorenz

Local 3621 member Lt. Adam Lorenz, who works for Emergency Medical Services at the Fire Dept., recounted management threats at the private hospital where he worked.
He recalled reporting to work on the morning of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Having worked late and with only two hours of sleep, Lorenz requested to go home to rest so he would be better prepared to answer emergency calls. Lorenz requested the downtime before the Twin Towers collapsed, so the hospital wasn’t yet sending ambulances to the World Trade Center.

“They wouldn’t let me go home,” Lorenz said. “My boss said, ‘Don’t come back here because you won’t have a job.’”

A coworker who suffered an injury was similarly threatened with dismissal after she said she needed more time to recuperate, Lorenz said. Without a decent benefits package and stressed from the poor workplace atmosphere, Lorenz eventually wanted out.

Christine Zarett, a member of Queens Library Guild Local 1321, decided to become a

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Christine Zarett

librarian after losing her job as a sales manager at Liz Claiborne. She had worked in the fashion industry for 30 years, earning a six figures annually, significantly below her current salary.

Zarett took advantage of the career change classes Liz Claiborne offered to their laid-off employees.

“One of the things they said is, ‘Be prepared to change your job every two years.’ I said, ‘Oh my,’’’ said Zarett.

Scratching by with temporary jobs, Zarett decided to get a master’s degree in library and information science at Hunter College.

“I downsized,” Zarett said, describing her decision to move to Queens as a major step toward a more tranquil life and more fulfilling job.

“I never had a passion for the fashion industry.” Zarett said.

“It was a killer,” she said describing the high-pressure environment of the apparel business.

Reflecting on her career change, Zarett said, “I love it.” Zarrett now works at the Long Island City branch of Queens Library.

“Being a librarian was always something I wanted to do,” she said. “I was a reader as a kid and always in the library.”

Before switching to the public sector, Social Worker Lise Wilson worked for a private agency that runs several homeless shelters.

“The hours were crazy,” said Wilson, who worked in a shelter for people with AIDS.

“Their staffing was so low that I would have to stay sometimes as much as two hours beyond my 8-hour day without overtime pay.”

Workers at Harlem Hospital generally don’t face the same uncertainty about the length of their workdays.

“I can leave when my work schedule is over,” Wilson said. “I definitely prefer working for the city, especially with a union there. The atmosphere is better. You know they won’t abuse you.”

Alma Roper, the executive vice president of Clerical-Administrative Employees Local 1549, worked in retail for 11 years before getting her job at the New York Police Dept.

At the upscale department store where she worked, Roper and other African-Americans felt there was an undercurrent of racism.

Most African-Americans worked in the basement and had low-paying jobs African American women encountered roadblocks to promotions. After going through training, Roper, then an assistant buyer, began interviewing for buyer positions.

She and two African-American co-workers were turned down while white workers moved into the positions.

The women began gathering evidence for a discrimination lawsuit. But eventually Roper simply decided to leave and look for a union-represented job, which she found at the Police Dept.

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Alma Roper

Roper is happy to be with the city, which has provided tens of thousands of women and minorities with a pathway to the middle class.

Civil service hiring practices do not exist in the private sector, where all too often your hiring is based on connections or the color of your skin, she noted.

“The civil service system protects you from discrimination,” Roper said. “You have to take a test to be promoted. You don’t have that in the private sector.”

Managerial Auditor Marilyn Baille, the treasurer of Accountants, Statisticians and Actuaries Local 1407, worked in the private sector for some 20 years.

“You had to work ridiculous hours,” Baille said. Working up to four hours of unpaid overtime was routine. “It was very stressful,” she said.

Baille entered the public sector as an at-will manager doing accounting work at the Dept. of Education. She lost her job in a wave of layoffs during former Mayor Michael J. Bloomberg’s administration.

Before then, Baille described herself as anti-union. But being laid off taught her the value of unions and civil service.

Taking the advice of coworkers, Baille took several civil service exams and eventually returned to the Dept. of Education as a union-represented management auditor. After her hiring, Baille soon became active in the union. She spends a lot of time talking to coworkers about the benefit of unions.

“Coming from the outside, I understand the animosity to unions,” Baille said. “But that’s because we don’t educate people about the history and accomplishments of unions. We not only need to educate our members but also the public.”

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Lionel Layne

Lionel Layne, a clerical associate (level 4), worked as a lighting technician in the theater district before starting work at the Dept. of Environmental Protection, where he has been nearly 12 years.

As a contract worker, Layne couldn’t count on steady work. He didn’t have health coverage, and he was forced to work overtime without compensation. He never received safety training for the dangerous work on ladders.

At DEP, Layne soon learned about the value of being covered by a collective bargaining agreement between the union and city. “When I started out at DEP, I received a raise after a couple of months,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow!”

After working in an unsafe work environment, Layne said he was pleased to have the opportunity to receive ergonomic training at DEP.

“In the public sector, the health and safety rules are very clear,” he said. “That’s not the case in theater, where there were times I felt I could fall off the ladder.”

Local 375 member Joshua Barnett sought his job as an architect at the New York City Housing Authority, because of his belief in public housing. He had spent several years in the private sector, where he didn’t like the profit-driven atmosphere.

Architectural work in the private sector is unstable because it is very affected by the volatility of the economy, Barnett said. At big firms, many workers feel like cogs in a machine, he said.

NYCHA Story

Joshua Bernett

“Most people generally came here for the job security and benefits plus the satisfaction that comes with public service,” Barnett said.

But he lamented that years of budget cuts, farming out work to contractors and the prolonged attack on public housing around the country have hurt moral at NYCHA.

“This is the biggest repository of public housing knowledge in the country,” Barnett said. “It’s knowing you are surrounded by people with very specialized knowledge and the mission of public housing that keeps you here.”

The DC 37 Blog is an official online publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 120,000 municipal employees in New York City. This post was originally in the May 2018 issue of Public Employee Press.

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