Throughout her neighborhood in Syracuse, 72-year-old Linda Martin — who has worked for 18 years providing telecommunications services for people with hearing disabilities — kept noticing signs advertising job opportunities.
“I drove by a McDonald’s and a Byrne Dairy and I noticed that their starting pay was significantly more than I was making,” said Martin. “I thought to myself, well, what is wrong with this picture?”
Martin is a communication assistant at the Texas-based nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf, She helps people who are deaf or have a hearing disability interact and communicate with important systems of modern life, such as banks and government assistance programs.
The program she helps operate, New York Relay 711, is a free public service provided by the state and federal government. Governments contract with major telecommunication companies, which then work with organizations like CSD that operate call centers across the country, including one on the West Side of Syracuse.
Martin’s concerns about low pay are shared among the majority of her colleagues at the Syracuse call center, according to a Aug. 12 unionization petition filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
“With the expertise that they expect from us, the professionalism, the skills, and the constant need to learn new things, we deserve more than what we are getting,” Martin said. “We deserve a living wage for what we bring to the table.”
A group within the 45 employees at the call center sought union representation under Communications Workers of Americas, calling themselves the CSD Workers United.
A union election via mail in ballots is scheduled to take place this month. The regional NLRB office in Buffalo will count the ballots on Sept. 30. If the election succeeds, CSD Workers United would be the first union of nonprofit workers providing relay services in the country.
Central Current interviewed four CSD workers who said they wanted a contract with better pay that measures up to current economic conditions. Starting pay for communication assistants is $14 per hour, according to a CSD Workers United organizer. The minimum wage in New York state is $13.20. Employees said they also wanted better work-life balance, scheduling flexibility, and improved benefits.
CSD did not respond to four requests for comment via email on the unionization efforts and claims made by employees about working conditions at the call center. An attorney representing CSD declined to comment.
Paula Russo, who has worked for CSD as a communication assistant for 24 years, said she has recently hit a breaking point with the job.
“I have been here half of my life. I’ve had both of my children while at this job, and we are at a point where both of my kids are making more money than I am now,” she said. “Cost of living is just terrible right now. I can barely pay my bills and I have gotten to the point where I have to ask my kids for money for gas. There is a big issue with pay when I’m consistently doing that.”
As a veteran team member, Russo also noted she has watched some of the perks of the job — such as shift flexibility and certain bonuses — erode over time.
“The stability of hours and scheduling and the ability to trade shifts has been taken away,” Russo said. “The flexibility part of the job is what made me love it so much, and a lot of it has been taken away. It was very accommodating before, and now it’s just difficult to maintain work-life balance.”
Russo has been frustrated with the response from supervisors.
“They say they are trying to be more consistent with what is offered at other centers,” Russo said. If things have worked for our center for this long, why are they taking things away from us.”
Other workers say the company shows a lack of flexibility when it comes to basic workplace functions like employee breaks.
Carden, who has worked for the organization for close to three years as a communication assistant, said the efficiency system used by CSD can make time management challenging. On an eight-hour shift, employees get two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute unpaid lunch.
During those 15-minute breaks, Carden said, employees are encouraged to log back into their computers at around 10-12 minutes after their break to maintain a high efficiency rate. This system also applies to remote workers, he added.
“We have been pushing for the organization to loosen that timing so that we can actually have full 15-minute breaks. We need breaks that actually help so you don’t come back from them still feeling exhausted.”
Although cutting breaks short is a company suggestion, Carden said the company can penalize employees for lower efficiency rates.
“At the end of the month, they tally the percentage of minutes you were logged in on your computer this number, and if it’s lower than 98 percent, then you get in trouble,” Carden said.
If employees are continually showing low efficiency rates, Carden said it can lead to eventual termination.
“It’s ridiculous. This is my break. I’m not getting a breather here. I’m just doing my job still,” he added.
As of mid August, CSD Workers United had the support of at least 30 workers in the proposed bargaining unit of 45.
For Martin, who has already retired from a previous career and plans to retire from this job in the near future, any workers’ gains through a new union contract would help her younger colleagues plan the rest of their lives.
“This is not an attack on the organization. I appreciate the job that I have had,” she said. “It’s about valuing their employees and paying them what they’re worth. We have employees who come in in their 20s, they have children and they work there for 20 years. They are responsible for saving for their own retirement through our 403 (b) plan. That is difficult with life’s ups and downs.”
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the workers as “interpreters.” They are telecommunications relay operators. They do not provide translation services.