As policy-makers debate when and how quickly we can reopen society with COVID-19 still plaguing us, it should be abundantly clear to those of us who must work for a living that not only is a return to "normal" unlikely, what passed for "normal" was awful for far too many people. Publicly-generated revenue, from the state's many sub-contracted services that are currently serving corporate interests, must be used to provide secure and safe jobs, with a level of safety net for all workers in the state, and investments into infrastructure projects and other public needs.

Research shows that the majority of workers putting their lives on the line are women of color, and their compensation is an insult to the word "essential." These workers tend to live close to or below the poverty line, are more likely to use public transportation, and are in dire need of social services to offset their lack of resources. These statistics predated the fact that the COVID-19 virus is disproportionately killing people of color and those on the margins of poverty.

Governor Cuomo, in his famous daily briefings, has spoken bluntly about these inequalities as "systemic racism." He recently proposed hazard pay for those on the front lines, among other policies to support essential workers. However, if we are truly going to have a conversation around systemic racism, then we need to talk about how contractors for the state are treating their employees.

Call-Center Staff's Burdens

Call-center workers are the backbone of the public-facing services that have been deemed essential during COVID-19. These workers tend to be women of color lacking access to affordable health care, with limited paid sick leave, and little power to stop reduced hours, layoffs, and other economic burdens transferred to them by their employers. Underrepresented in the media, often carved out of public policy and less likely to enjoy union protections, workers understandably have safety concerns over lack of cleaning and air quality that are common in the call-center environment.

E-ZPass call-center workers provide essential services to the State of New York by supporting the electronic tolling system. They deal with frustrated commuters, facilitate billing and payments and troubleshoot customer concerns when E-ZPass tags don't register. They are employed by a company called Conduent, which is owned by a mix of hedge funds and other investment corporations. Companies such as Icahn Associates see the steady revenue streams from government contracts as a good bet. Conduent's contract with New York's transportation authorities, which is up for renewal at the end of 2020, totals over $20 million a year.

Extracting corporate profits from these public services relies on pushing down labor costs, the single-most-significant expense to the operation and the reason the state finds contracting attractive. Pay for these workers is as precarious as you can get. "Activity-Based Compensation" turned customer-service calls into piecework. In a recent internal study by my union, Communications Workers of America Local 1102, it was found that income for E-ZPass call-center workers had remained stagnant over the last three years. There is also an argument that these practices are bad for customer service.

The profits squeezed from these contracts create unstable working conditions that complicate organizing. The E-Zpass call center on Staten Island represented by CWA Local 1102, still sees about a 30-percent churn in the workforce per year.

Outbreak's Impact

NY State Authorities deemed the E-ZPass call center an essential public service. Conduent refused to offer any paid sick leave for high-risk individuals or for employees with child-care issues. They have declined proposals for hazard pay and instead cut hours--and pay--in the name of "social distancing," while work-from-home options that aid many directly-employed state workers were denied until an outbreak of COVID-19 at the call center began to spread, forcing state authorities to intervene.

A corporate subcontractor transferred the economic burden of the pandemic onto the public-service workforce--and taxpayers--by forcing workers to seek unemployment benefits. All the while, toll revenue remained a reliable source of should-be public revenue and the company kept making its money. It was admirable of Governor Cuomo to recognize systemic racism in his address, and we are hopeful that we can now discuss how state contractors fit into the equation.

The Governor has called for us to re-envision a new social agreement as we reopen the state, where essential workers are respected, inequalities are confronted and a new social-safety net is established. Reading through the political rhetoric, analyzing the research, and tapping into my experience organizing essential workers, it is my opinion that the labor movement also must re-imagine the post-COVID world. The most important thing we can do now is challenge the structures at the root of systemic racism, starting with the employers who are contracted by the State of New York and do not provide their workers with the proper safety, decent wages and access to affordable health care.

We support the Governor's goal of a better post-pandemic world. Hopefully, we can start by recognizing and supporting all essential public-service workers. Call-center workers at E-ZPass deserve rights and protections that match those of other public service workers who answer to state authorities. Public service, not shareholder value, should be the driving force of the public's transportation system.

Steve Lawton is the president of CWA Local 1102.

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