Protesters rally for fair treatment of Industry City’s essential workers

Sunset Park community members marched into Industry City offices on June 18 to protest what they called poor working conditions at the complex during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

Demonstrators gathered outside Sunset Park’s Industry City on June 18 to protest the hub’s alleged “ruthless” treatment of essential workers — including threatening a whistleblower who spoke up about unsafe working conditions, according to one rally-goer.

“This treatment is a demonstration of the way Industry City operates,” said Jeremy Kaplan, a Sunset Park resident. “They have billions of dollars, why are they trying to fire an employee in the middle of a pandemic?”

Robert Stevens, a security guard at the Sunset Park business complex, claims he confronted management in early March for failing to implement proper safety measures and to notify employees that some co-workers and patrons had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. 

“I brought to the attention of a few officials from management in emails concerns about COVID-19 when we initially had the state of emergency,” said Stevens, who added that he received a response from one manager saying he “wouldn’t suggest licking the floor of the subway to get 14 days sick pay.”

After no protective measures were implemented, Stevens said he filed a complaint against the employer — which, he says, led management to slap him with his first-ever demerit on his disciplinary record on the very same day that the state’s Department of Labor confirmed receiving his complaint. 

“I’ve had a very pristine record of service, no blemishes,” Stevens said. “Suddenly that same day, management was issuing disciplinary action against me.” 

Following the initial demerit, Stevens said he was routinely written up by his supervisors for eating on duty and using his cell phone, which he said is required for his job, and had never been enforced previously — eventually leading to two suspensions. 

“So now, they are writing me up on things that have never been enforced before,” said Stevens, a soon-to-be father-of-two who Sunset Parkers might recognize for speaking out against his employer’s decision to hire an exterminator to forcibly remove a colony of 20 feral cats from the premises in 2017.

Organizers with Protect Sunset Park, a neighborhood activist group, scheduled Thursday’s protest to coincide with a planned management meeting to discuss Stevens’ possible termination.

After rallying outside of the waterfront complex on Second Avenue, protesters moved indoors in search of the alleged meeting, but were unable to find its location and turned back in search of the office of Industry City’s CEO Andrew Kimball. Their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but demonstrators say, their intentions were as clear as the complex’s.

“We need to demonstrate that this [behavior] is really their true side, this is how they treat their workers, this is how they treat the community,” Kaplan said. “They are going to want us to forget about all of this during the rezoning.”

Sunset Park community members hang signs inside an office of Industry City in protest.

The complex’s developers are currently seeking approval on a controversial rezoning application that, if approved, would allow Kimball to develop 1-million square feet of space at Industry City into big-box retail, academic spaces and hotels among other amenities as part of a $1-billion redevelopment plan. 

Community activists contend the redevelopment will lead to the increased gentrification of Sunset Park and result in a spike in rents in the neighborhood, while the project’s supporters laud the jobs the project is expected to bring to the area.

In a statement, the manufacturing hub denied Stevens’ claims of retaliation, calling the “false allegations” an “unneeded distraction” as management works to safely transition into phase two of the city’s reopening. 

“There is absolutely no truth to any claim made by anyone that suggests an employee of Industry City or, as in this case an employee of a contractor, was suspended or terminated based on any retaliatory practice. We are very proud that the IC community stepped up to meet the demand for essential goods and services, and are grateful to those employees who served as part of the front line workers battling COVID-19,” the statement read.

Area Councilman Carlos Menchaca blasted Industry City executives for downplaying employee’s concerns. 

“What is happening at Industry City is appalling. Even before the pandemic, I’ve been working with Robert to ensure he and his fellow security guards are treated fairly and with respect. To call their health concerns a distraction is itself a distraction,” Menchaca told Brooklyn Paper. “Nothing could be more relevant than worrying about proper protection during a pandemic. Now that we’re moving closer to recovery, I’m going to fight even harder for these essential workers.”

However, some community organizers urge the councilman to put his money where his mouth is and stand with the Sunset Park community against the “corporate landlords.” 

“Council Member Menchaca needs to back his words up with action,” said Antoinette Martinez, an organizer with Protect Sunset Park. “He must call on the corporate landlords to cease their harassment campaign against Robert and to withdraw their plan to replace essential manufacturing jobs with inessential retail and corporate office space. Industry City has shown through its retaliatory actions against frontline workers that it is not a trustworthy partner and that their proposed rezoning of our working waterfront should be rejected outright.”

Update (6:40 pm): This article has been updated to include comment from area Councilman Carlos Menchaca and from an organizer with Protect Sunset Park.