911 Dispatchers Call for Exodus From Scandal-Tainted Clerical Union
“We’re not clerical workers: We’re first responders,” said one 10-year veteran dispatcher. “We take one million calls every year. We’re undervalued.”
Revelations from an internal union audit last month that found financial mismanagement at Local 1549 at District Council 37 have buoyed efforts among 911 dispatchers and operators to secede from the local and pursue other options within DC 37, THE CITY has learned.
Among the options workers are exploring: Creating a new DC 37 local for the city’s 1,600 911 dispatchers, or to align themselves with another DC 37 local representing first responders.
Talks among dispatchers to leave Local 1549, an influential local that represents clerical workers within the city’s largest public sector union, picked up after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation classifying 911 dispatchers as first responders last year.
Several workers who support the move argue their duties are not clerical but in fact part of the city’s public safety infrastructure. They also assert that the collective bargaining agreement representing clerical workers keep their salaries capped at numbers far below what their peers in law enforcement and other emergency services earn.
The 911 dispatchers, like the 12,000 clerical workers represented by Local 1549, are among the city’s lowest paid workers: Base salaries for dispatchers start at $39,000 a year and cap at $53,000, similar to EMTs. Meanwhile, firefighters earn around $86,000 after five years, and police officers’ salaries start at $42,500 and then go up to $85,292 after 5 and a half years.
The movement reached a fever pitch after a financial audit by the local’s parent union last month revealed that leadership was improperly using members’ dues for black car services, credit card expenses and gift cards that were improperly tracked.
“We’re not clerical workers: We’re first responders,” said one 10-year veteran dispatcher who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “We take one million calls every year. We’re undervalued. Sometimes we gotta work 15-hour shifts. No one asks if we’re OK.”
A spokesperson for DC 37, citing the administratorship, referred THE CITY to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the parent union that took over the local’s day-to-day operations last month. A spokesperson for AFSCME did not respond to a request for comment.
An Opening to Exit
The movement to exit Local 1549 began in earnest after Hochul signed a new law reclassifying 911 dispatchers as first responders. That move unlocked access to federal grants and financial support to improve training, retention and wages, the Daily News reported.
Officially, 911 dispatchers and operators are employed by the NYPD and known as “police communications technicians” and “supervising police communications technicians.”
In recent months, workers have been in dialogue with leadership at DC 37 to work out a plan for the dispatchers to switch locals or start their own, according to several rank and file members familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Among their top concerns: Securing wages comparable to other first responders and raises to account for new responsibilities, like school safety dispatching and 911 texting capabilities, according to one woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
She also noted that workers are pulled into mandatory overtime several times a week, which can extend their shifts to up to 16 hours.
Efforts to remedy those concerns have been “horrible” under the leadership of Eddie Rodriguez, the local’s now-ousted president, she said.
Dispatchers, unable to work remotely during the pandemic, reported to crowded call centers every day separated by little more than plexiglass, with some commuting from their homes in Staten Island to The Bronx for three hours via public transit.
“We made an oath, so we had to go to work. Somebody had to pick up after our city. We were scared — but we were proud to do so,” the 10-year vet said.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, allegedly spent workers’ dues in 109 black car services to chauffer himself to the office during the pandemic — an average of $288 per trip — according to a draft version of the audit obtained by THE CITY.
“We go through a lot,” said another worker, 28, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The least they [the local] could do for us is to get more money. Instead, they’re stealing our money.”
In September, with the approval of the council’s top leadership, including executive director Henry Garrido, the local underwent a still-ongoing 30-day survey of dispatchers measuring support for collective bargaining reclassification and potential secession from Local 1549.
That process was only one week in, the sources said, when news of the audit broke.
“The minute this came out, people in here, they’re pissed. They can’t even believe it,” the worker who’s been in the agency for 10 years said. “We’ve been asking for a raise for years. This is what you do? This is how you repay us? People are really upset right now.
“People are ready to go,” she added.
A Long Fight
Another worker said while the audit has only increased enthusiasm among the rank and file to explore options outside of Local 1549, no one wants to decertify from DC 37.
The 911 dispatchers are collecting feedback from the non-binding survey until next week and have collected nearly 800 signatures so far, one of the people said.
The dispatchers and operators had pursued reclassification once before, in 2015.
That summer, a survey of 490 Local 1549 dispatchers and operators found that 93.54% of respondents agreed that they did not want to be included in the collective bargaining unit representing clerical workers, and 98.96% agreed to sign a petition “to be placed in a bargaining unit among job titles that is more reflective of the job function” of police communication technicians and supervising police communication technicians, according to a summary of the results obtained by THE CITY.
“When you come into work in the police department, they tell you as a police communications technician you have the same ranking as a police officer ... yet you don’t have the same pay,” said former dispatcher Shalah Collins, who led that 2015 effort before she retired the following year. She is now advising workers on their current push.
“It’s an extreme pay disparity,” she added.
The 28-year-old worker, who works five days a week, said she is pulled into three 16-hour mandatory overtime shifts per week.
“I go home, sleep for three hours, and then go right back to work,” she said.