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Wage Wars: As the Brooklyn Real Estate Market Skyrockets, Union Employees Need to Know Their Rights

No longer can Brooklyn be labeled as the cheap neighbor of Manhattan in terms of real estate prices. The fact is, Brooklyn is booming and there are numbers to prove it.  As recent as June 2013, there is only a ten percent differential in the asking prices of apartments in Brooklyn Heights and the West Village. As families, professionals, and artists migrate across the bridge, they may  be surprised to find that the median asking price for a Brooklyn Heights apartment has risen 37.8 percent in the past five years. In fact, Brooklyn rental rates are rising even more rapidly than those in Manhattan.

Brooklyn also boasts an optimal location for such development projects. According to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, there are about 200,000 skilled craftsmen, operatives, machine operators, and other blue collar workers in Brooklyn alone. This means that there are plenty of trained workers to build the new luxury rental apartments popping up around the borough.  Most of the new real estate development projects approved in New York City are concentrated in Brooklyn, with about 1,295 units authorized for construction in the first quarter of 2013.

With new stylish modern studios and multiple bedroom units entering the real estate scene, new employee hires will likely also be on the rise for those in the service industry, like construction workers, porters, plumbers, electricians, and doormen.. Yet with so many companies and developers looking to cut costs wherever possible, unionized employees may find themselves at a disadvantage.

Brooklyn-based employees in the construction and real-estate services sectors typically are union members.  Workers in New York City and Brooklyn have Local 3 for electricians, Local 580 for ironworkers, and Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. The latter is currently one of the fastest growing unions in North America with 2.1 million members and 225,000 doormen, porters, janitors, building superintendents, security officers, and window washers.

Although workers in this industry will undoubtedly be seeing more job openings, they should also be aware of potential employer retaliation they may face for participating in union activities and the potential for being refused earned wages and overtime pay.  According to the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA“), all non-exempt employees have the right to join a union, and any employer interference with union membership, or retaliation for engaging in union activities or organizing, is unlawful.  For example, employers cannot threaten employees, cut their benefits, terminate them, or punish them for being involved with a union.

There are instances when, trying to shirk higher costs, companies will avoid hiring unionized employees or will retaliate against them for attempting to organize.  This is because union members have negotiated benefits and contractually enforceable terms of employment such that they are “for cause” employees who do not work for their employer “at will.”  Although this tactic may save these companies cash in the short run, retaliating against an employee who is part of a union or seeks to form a union is shortsighted – jilted employees are capable of bringing a costly lawsuit, and there is no guarantee that union activity won’t otherwise gain hold.

Additionally, the New York Labor Law and  the Fair Labor Standards act require that employees, whether  paid hourly wages or salaries, receive lawful overtime wages for work preformed after forty hours in a given week.  And it does not matter whether you are a doorman at a Brooklyn hotel, a crane operator for a new Brooklyn high-rise, or an executive at an investment bank who commutes from Park Slope to lower Manhattan, Brooklyn employees have the right to be treated fairly in the workplace, including full and prompt payment of your overtime wages, bonus compensation, or earned salary.

Christopher Davis is an experienced employment litigator specializing in class actions, overtime wage recovery, discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, and Wall Street bonus disputes. Before entering private practice, Mr. Davis served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office where he prosecuted violent crimes as a member of the Sex Crimes Unit.

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