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Groups protest Elmhurst mall

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Guillermo Serpe said he used to work for a construction company that paid him less than minimum wage, and now he wants to make sure no one else goes underpaid as he once did.

So the Jackson Heights resident joined about 20 other protesters in front of the Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst Sunday afternoon seeking to educate passers-by about the New York City living wage campaign.

“I am here today to support workers because I was once exploited at a construction job,” he said through a Spanish-language translator. “I’m here today supporting workers. Hopefully, with this campaign all the workers at the mall are going to be paid a living wage.”

The initiative, spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union and the nonprofit community organization Make the Road New York, aims to put pressure on taxpayer-subsidized companies to ensure all employees citywide are paid a living wage.

Ken Gillett, senior vice president for property management for Macerich, the company that owns Queens Center Mall, said wage issues should be left to the state and federal governments rather than property owners.

“We’re the property owner, so we don’t have any direct intervention between merchants in our center and their merchant-employee relationsh­ip,” Gillett said. “We don’t have the ability to dictate to our individual retailers how they pay their employees.”

A living wage is defined by the union as at least $10 an hour if certain benefits are provided, or $11.50 per hour for positions without benefits. The mall has received $48 million in property tax subsidies and is scheduled to receive more than $50 million more, according to union literature distributed at the event.

“Queens Center Mall is an example of a very profitable company, one of the most profitable malls in the country, and it’s going to receive over $100 million in tax abatements over its life,” said Jeff Eichler, coordinator of the union’s retail organizing project. “We believe that when you receive such public money, you have to give back to the community and pay a living wage.”

But Eichler and Make the Road New York contend that the average retail job at the mall pays about minimum wage, or $7.25 per hour. As such, they have hosted numerous protests at the mall since the campaign kicked off Dec. 29, 2009, and asked passing customers to sign pledge cards Sunday saying they support the living wage campaign in hopes of being able to show that the greater Queens community believes in the work Make the Road and the union are doing on behalf of workers.

The groups also argue that the mall should be more involved in the community and offer its two community spaces in the facility for local benefit.

Gillett pointed out that mall employees are involved in community service work and said Macerich is in ongoing conversations with Make the Road about using the community spaces for ESL and job training courses.

“We did have the opportunity to sit down with a number of the leaders of those organizations a couple of weeks ago and we think that was a great first step toward creating an opening, a dialogue, with those organizati­ons,” he said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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