LAWRENCE – A leader of the union representing city laborers said Friday he may file complaints with two state agencies alleging the city is forcing the laborers to work in dangerous conditions without training or equipment, including ordering them to gather hypodermic needles at a homeless encampment and to work amid street sweepings and festering piles of muck scooped from storm drains and left sitting in the sun for days at the public works yard.
The union's concerns about working conditions have simmered for years and flared again on Monday, when the laborers were sent to the homeless encampment under the Central Bridge.
The encampment was largely abandoned after Mayor Daniel Rivera ordered police to increase their presence there. Most of the men and women living under the bridge scattered, leaving behind piles of mattresses, furniture and clothes, as well as what Ike Gabriel, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, said were hundreds of hypodermic needless strewn around the area. Gabriel said none of the dozen or so laborers sent to do the clean up were trained in handling hazardous materials.
After receiving a call from a shop steward complaining about the work detail, Gabriel visited the encampment and directed the laborers back to the city yard on Auburn Street. Gabriel then got what he said was a profanity-laced call from Rivera directing him not to interfere with the work.
Rivera said he was upset but denied using profanity.
“I immediately told the guys to stop working, this is too dangerous,” Gabriel said. “They had no safety equipment. They had a pair of gloves. That's it. The mayor said I don't have the authority (to direct workers to leave the site). I say I do. I said I'm not going to allow these people to go down there in those conditions.”
Gabriel noted that the city sent a hazardous materials team wearing fully contained protective suits into a Garden Street apartment building after three people overdosed – two fatally -- on a combination of cocaine and fentanyl on July 17. Even a limited exposure to fentanyl can cause injury or death, depending on the strength of the dose.
Rivera said the city's contract with the union does not allow it to direct workers. City Public Works Director Carlos Jaquez ordered them back to the site. They returned, but remained in their trucks until their shift ended at 3 p.m., Gabriel said.
Rivera offered a different account of events. He said the laborers used only heavy equipment, including front-end loaders called bobcats, to clear the floors at the homeless encampment of the hypodermic needles and other debris, and used the same equipment to handle it after it was hauled to the city yard.
“They used machines to move it every time,” Rivera said. “We would never put people in harm's way. We're as concerned as the union is to make sure we do it right. They've been instructed not to touch anything by hand. But I understand their concern.”
He said the laborers are given protective boots, and said only the city's newly appointed homeless coordinator is authorized to handle hypodermic needles.
On Aug. 4, a week before laborers were sent to clean out the homeless encampment, the union met with city officials and their lawyers to discuss earlier complaints about conditions at the yard. There was little agreement, including about how the session ended. Each side accuses the other of walking out.
The laborers have not been sent back to the homeless encampment but continue to work in what the union says are dangerous conditions at the city yard.
On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the union sent a lawyer for the city a letter alleging that conditions at the yard “have deteriorated to such an extent that the union belives a major remediation, with professional oversight, is necessary and required by law.”
The union lawyer, Paige McKissock, asked the city to reassign laborers to other locations until conditions at the yard are improved. She also asked the city to invite the state Division of Labor Standards and Department of Environmental Protection to inspect the yard, and asked that the city pay for medical examinations for the laborers.
Gabriel said the SEIU will file unfair labor practice complaints with the DLS and other complaints with the DEP if it's not satisfied with the city's answer.
Rivera said Friday he had not seen McKissock's letter and so would not comment on it.
“I will say, we were at the table talking about how we can fix the conditions at the yard because I agree we need to fix the problems," he said.
He noted that several improvements at the yard are included in the city's capital plan, including $500,000 to rebuild the salt shed and $100,000 to repair a roof over a garage.
Rivera is running for a second term as mayor in the Sept. 26 preliminary election.