Homeless crisis workers seek respect

Johnny Valdez, left, cleans CCC’s Estate Building, a “clean and sober” facility. A former resident, he feels exposed to COVID-19, but gets no hazard pay.

By Don McIntosh

PORTLAND—On a cold and rainy Nov. 19, up to three dozen union members gathered outside the Old Town headquarters of Central City Concern (CCC). It was a masked and socially distanced protest at one of the area’s largest non-profits serving the homeless and addicted. CCC is a vast enterprise, operating clinics, pharmacies, the Hooper Detox Center, and 27 multi-unit buildings with 3,800 residents—most formerly homeless and in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. CCC also staffs the Clean and Safe program, with staff and volunteers cleaning a 213-block area downtown, and helps people in recovery find employment. AFSCME Local 88 represents about 300 of CCC’s 1,000 employees, including janitors, cooks, maintenance workers, clerical support staff, medical assistants, and nurses, as well as non-trainee crew members on the Clean & Safe teams. Many are former clients of the program, and are in recovery themselves. It was unusual for a union protest, in that they’re less than halfway through a three-year contract that runs through June 30, 2022. That contract raised wages for the least-paid workers to at least $15.75 currently, but new issues have arisen since it was signed. The protest was called to draw attention to three demands.

  • COVID pay: In light of their continued exposure to COVID-19, they want continued hazard pay. Starting in April, CCC paid workers who had contact with the public an extra $320 a month, but ended that in September.
  • Lower case loads: Counselors and case workers say they’re suffering burnout from being assigned to help too many clients at once.
  • A path for unrepresented workers to unionize: Local 88 is asking CCC management to commit to neutrality when unrepresented groups of workers decide they want to join the union.
PARTY CRASHERS Central City Concern held an open house June 28, 2019 to mark the opening of its new Blackburn Center at 121st and East Burnside. Blackburn combines housing, health, and employment services, but CCC opened it as a nonunion facility. In protest, a green-shirt brigade of AFSCME members crashed the event and mingled with donors and dignitaries.

Patty Gelmstedt, a medical assistant at CCC’s Old Town Clinic, says it feels like a dark time, and morale is low. The work was already challenging, and COVID-19 added new levels of stress.

“We’re on the front lines helping clients that are exposed. We see homeless indigent clients coming in with upper respiratory symptoms, saying they have fever, cough, and sore throat.”

Union representative Dennis Ziemer says neutrality became a particular issue last year when CCC opened a new combined residential and clinic facility, the Blackburn, and declared that its newly hired workers weren’t part of the union bargaining unit.

Union steward Kevin Shields, part of the union-represented eight-person team that maintains CCC’s downtown buildings, says there’s no reason workers at the Blackburn shouldn’t be in the union.

“They do the same job as their brothers and sisters,” Shields said. “We want them to have the opportunity to have the same benefits and conditions we have.”

CCC spokesperson Juliana Lukasik said continuing COVID bonus pay would be cost-prohibitive without additional sources of funding, but said CCC is hoping to find extra funding.

The two sides are also meeting to discuss neutrality.

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