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College Point health care workers vote to form union

After a relatively calm organizing drive, hundreds of employees of a human service agency based in College Point have voted to unionize.

Contract negotiations were expected to begin in about a month between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and PSCH, which provides care for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled at 26 sites across the city.

Both sides said the organizing process was not contentious.

"I am glad that we were able to reach an agreement without experiencing the kind of divisiveness that often accompanies a unionizing campaign," said Claire Mahon, executive vice president of PSCH.

PSCH runs group homes, day programs and clinics primarily in Queens but has facilities in other boroughs, Mahon said.

The private agency employs about 1,000 people altogether. The organization's direct care workers, maintenance workers and non-supervisory personnel, totaling about 490 employees, are being represented by UNITE, Mahon said.

About 250 employees report to PSCH's main office at 22-44 119th St. in College Point, Mahon said.

UNITE announced the results of the vote on March 10. The Rev. Nicholas Tweed of the Macedonia AME Church in Flushing, a house of worship that many of PSCH's employees attend, counted the union cards signed by PSCH workers and certified that the union had achieved a majority.

Wilma Neal, who heads UNITE's disability services council, said her union was targeting workers at service agencies such as PSCH. Neal said state-run agencies for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled were disappearing in favor of private institutions.

"They are being phased out into private non-profits, which don't offer the same level of pay, the same level of benefits," she said.

Mahon conceded the salaries of PSCH workers were a "little low," but said since her company relied on government funding, it could not afford to pay any more.

"We are at the mercy of state and federal budgets," she said. "We don't get to really decide about how much we can pay."

Neal said her union was aware of the financial situation of PSCH and remained optimistic about the upcoming negotiations.

"I would hope that the agency would handle these negotiations in the same manner in which they handled the election process and that is with fairness, openness and a willingness to listen to their workers," she said. "I think if they continue to do that, we should be able to reach an agreement which is acceptable to all parties."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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