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Elmhurst shopping center gets earful over workers’ wages

Tapia Laura (l.) leads protesters from multiple civic groups in a chant at a demonstration against the Queens Center Mall, which they say does not equitably pay their workers. Photo by Rebecca Henely
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Activist groups marched into the administrative offices of Elmhurst’s Queens Center Mall last Thursday, dropping off 5,500 signatures demanding the mall give their workers higher wages and provide a community space.

“They cannot earn enough to support their families with dignity,” said the Rev. Darrell DaCosta of the mall workers. DaCosta, a member of Queens Congregations United for Action, is the pastor of the St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Corona and led much of the protest.

While an employee of the mall at one point threatened to call the police on the protesters, who in response broke into chants of “Shame on you,” the exchange cooled down after Jeff Owen, senior manager at the Queens Center Mall, met with the protesters and agreed to relay the message that the groups wanted to meet with Arthur Coppola, chief executive officer of Macerich, the company which owns the mall.

Owen later said in an e-mail that the mall pays a living wage to its own employees and has taken a role in facilitating community-focused services and events.

“We continue to be fully committed that Queens Center remains to function as a vibrant economic engine, helping to power the local economy and sustain local businesses,” Owen said.

The protest, held in front of the mall at 90-15 Queens Blvd. before moving into the administrative office, was the latest part of a long, ongoing campaign held by civic groups QCUA, Make the Road New York, Living Wage NYC and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to change the conditions for workers at the mall.

The campaign has earned the support of local legislators, including state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), state Assemblymen Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) and Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona) as well as City Council members Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst).

Protesters held up signs and chanted in English and Spanish. DaCosta said their demands were that the workers get paid a minimum of $10 an hour with benefits, that the mall allows the workers to unionize without intimidation and that the mall provides a community space that can be used for job training, job placement, school programs or English classes for immigrants. The protesters said they wanted this because the mall enjoys millions in subsidies in property tax abatements.

“We’re asking for the resources that are going into this mall to be shared equally,” DaCosta said.

Isabel Enclada, a Corona resident and low-income worker, said through a translator that because the mall gets subsidies it is supposed to bring economic development, but creates mostly part-time jobs that pay New York state minimum wage.

“We need good jobs, not poverty jobs,” she said. “It’s hard to support our families making $7.25 an hour.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Posted 2:55 pm, September 29, 2011
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