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BID Union Gets New Labor Deal After Complaints Over Pay, Dangerous Conditions

After going public with their complaints Thursday following months of negotiations, the workers who clean the streets of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District are poised to ratify their first union contract, Bisnow has learned.

Union officials say workers in the BID, which spans much of D.C.'s central business district, will vote to ratify the deal on Friday after what they allege are years of low pay and rising dangers on the job exacerbated by protests and a largely empty office district during the pandemic.

A Golden Triangle BID ambassador hands out leaflets on working conditions on Thursday, March 10.

As federal workers prepare to return to their downtown offices, these workers are now on the cusp of securing better benefits and higher wages.

“This contract is a step in the right direction to help these essential workers better support themselves and their families with more livable wages,” Jaime Contreras, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU, said in a statement. “These workers, who brave the elements all day and regularly face all sorts of confrontations are a critical part of our city’s economic recovery by encouraging a return of workers and visitors to support local businesses.”

Bisnow spoke to Contreras and a worker with the BID this week as local SEIU members were preparing to start leafleting around Metro stations Thursday morning. 

Bisnow reached out to Block by Block, the organization that employs the BID workers through a contract with the BID, on Thursday at noon. By mid-afternoon, Block by Block had agreed to a tentative deal with the union, according to a memorandum of understanding viewed by Bisnow.

Through a spokesperson, Block by Block declined to respond to questions about worker security, pay or its protective health measures, saying they would only comment on the agreement now that one had been reached.

"We are pleased to announce that Block by Block has reached an agreement with the SEIU today that has been endorsed by both parties, subject to ratification by the membership. That ratification is expected by Monday," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We look forward to working alongside the SEIU members to continue to serve the district and the Golden Triangle."

Under a tentative agreement, the 23 unionized BID workers’ minimum wage would jump by roughly a dollar an hour, and it would reach at least $18 an hour for ambassadors by June 26, 2024.

The union agreement could not come soon enough for Golden Triangle Ambassador Gwyn Dixon, a longtime D.C. resident who currently lives in Deanwood and has worked for the BID for more than seven years.

Over the past two years, Dixon has worked some of the most difficult days in the capital, including during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when Dixon said he was instructed by his supervisors to stay out on the streets even as crowds turned violent.

Dixon, 63, said he has been kicked and punched by homeless people suffering from mental health issues as he’s tried to help them and called racial slurs by counter-protesters during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.

"We see a lot," Dixon said. "And you know, sometimes you're afraid, you know, you don't know what to do or what the next day is going to bring."

The Golden Triangle BID's ambassadors first voted to join 32BJ SEIU in June last year. The BID, which covers a large portion of D.C.'s central business district in areas south of Dupont Circle, east of Foggy Bottom and west of the White House, is the third-largest in the region with $5.74M in revenue, according to the Washington Business Journal.

Since the union vote last year, SEIU officials have attended seven bargaining sessions, they said, none of which yielded an offer more than 10 cents above minimum wage before Thursday's offer. 

Contreras noted the BID encompasses 43 blocks of some of the largest and most valuable office buildings in the city and said management could easily afford to pay higher wages if it chose.

“These were workers that were praised during the pandemic for being essential workers but were not given essential pay,” Contreras said. “Now that the federal workforce is coming back to work, I think it's all the more reason to ensure these workers receive adequate pay.”

The Golden Triangle BID's Outdoor Office pop-up in Downtown D.C.'s Farragut Square.

Other BIDs have been more generous to their ambassadors during the pandemic. The Rosslyn BID, which also contracts with Block by Block, lowered its ambassadors’ schedule to 15 hours per week while still paying for the full 40 hours, and gave its ambassadors a raise and bonus last year, a spokesperson said. The DowntownDC BID also confirmed to Bisnow they provided hazard pay for their street workers during the height of the pandemic. The union said Golden Triangle provided no such compensation. 

There are roughly 5,000 security officers in SEIU's D.C. chapter who make at least $19.25 per hour, and 10,500 office building cleaners whose wages average $17.95 per hour, Contreras said. Most of the Golden Triangle BID workers have made $15.20 an hour, according to a union official. Contreras said the low wages and long negotiating process were a "slap in the face" for workers.

 “These workers are now going to be even busier maintaining the downtown," Contreras said. "The least Block by Block and the Golden Triangle BID folks can do is treat them with respect." 

In response to a list of questions, including whether the BID has provided hazard pay or bonuses to workers during the pandemic, a spokesperson for the Golden Triangle BID didn't address specifics but acknowledged the negotiations between workers and Block by Block.

“We support fair wages, but the negotiations are between Block by Block and SEIU,” the spokesperson said.

Office workers are increasingly returning to Golden Triangle. Data from Kastle Systems shows that average office occupancy rose to 35% across the District as of March 2, up more than 2% from the week before. That number is expected to continue rising as President Joe Biden declared this month that the "vast majority" of the federal workforce would be returning their offices, several of which lie within the Golden Triangle BID.

Block by Block, which is owned by SMS Holdings and sometimes does business as Mydatt Services, employs workers in more than 100 downtown locations around the country, according to its website, often through contracts with business improvement districts. Issues involving workplace safety and labor disputes have popped up in other cities in the past, including Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Oakland.

One lawsuit filed against the company in California alleged the employer didn't provide workers breaks and didn't adequately pay them for overtime work, instead pressing them to work “off the clock.”

In his own experience, Dixon said he wasn't allowed to take overtime. When he was required to stay late to work events, like Farragut Friday, Dixon was instead told to take time off the next day so that he wouldn't go over his hours.

Dixon said job responsibilities included clearing trash, directing visitors, working special events and many other tasks that he says fuse the responsibilities of a hospitality and maintenance job, yet wages didn’t reflect the high demands of his position. He said the BID told ambassadors they provide shop owners with a sense of security because they walk around with a radio and uniform, even though he had to sign paperwork saying he wouldn't try and defend himself in an altercation. 

“When they ask, 'What is your job description?' I always say 'how high,’” Dixon said. “Anything they can come up with, they would throw at us. But the pay rate just didn't match what we were doing.”

Dixon said he got the job because he likes working outdoors and meeting people, but he wants a higher wage so he can afford to move to a neighborhood where he feels safer.

“I need a living wage. I need to get out of here and find something different, just for my safety,” Dixon said. “I don't want to be in danger at work and then I have to come home and be in danger also.”