Workers at Jersey City’s Public Safety Communications Center which handles 911 calls say the city has continued to underpay them, hoping to “bust” their union and privatize the operation.

In March, The Jersey City Times reported on systemic problems at the call center including chronic understaffing and poor management that workers said have compromised public safety. Workers also complained that they were owed thousands of dollars in back pay and overtime because of the malfunctioning payroll system, Unicorn. 

“We haven’t been paid correctly since” Unicorn went live in December, said a veteran worker at the call center who, fearing for their job, asked to remain anonymous. Over seven months the worker estimated that they had been underpaid by over $10,000.

Asked if they had complained to superiors, they responded: “Every chance I get. I send emails. I confront them about it.” The worker said they had sent emails to Councilman Richard Boggiano, Public Safety Director James Shea, Police Director Tawana Moody and Business Administrator John Metro. “Nobody’s responding to anything.”

“I was literally told that I need to work three extra days a week in order for me to get my regular pay” said the worker.

According to the workers, Unicorn can’t handle the irregular schedule worked by call takers and dispatchers, who work five days on then two days off followed by a schedule of five days on and three days off. As a result, the system underpays the workers by four hours every week and undercounts overtime owed. 

Another worker, who also requested anonymity, said of Unicorn, “It’s actually getting worse. We’re still getting paid for 72 hours instead of 80” that an employee works. “For every 8 hours we take in paid time off we take, they take 8.2 hours away. If I take five paid days off, they count it as six.”

Unicorn’s problems arose immediately. In January, it became the focus of a city council meeting when firefighters and police complained that their paychecks were incorrect. Although some problems continue for those workers, the city has reportedly found work-arounds to address the problems for police and firemen.

The city, said the workers, has used an internal power struggle at their union, local 246, as an excuse for inaction, sequestering hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues and making the hiring of attorneys to prosecute their grievances over the underpayment of wages impossible. In the meantime, the underpayments and miscalculations have gone unaddressed. Workers have said they believe that the city is hoping to “bust” the union with an eye towards privatizing the call center.

Fueling call center worker anxiety, in April, at the behest of Public Safety Director James Shea, the city council narrowly approved awarding a $213,000 contract to IXP Corp. to “complete initial workshops, technology assessment and gap analysis services” of the call center. It was the third time in eight years that IXP was hired to do such an assessment. Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, who along with Councilmen James Solomon and Frank Gilmore opposed the contract, said, “we’ve let the radio room fall apart.” Hiring the firm, he continued, “is a waste of money.”

In his run for governor, Mayor Fulop has touted his support from several unions. In 2022, he said that “In Jersey City, we already set the highest minimum wage standards, and we are taking it a step further to provide our residents and workers with a decent standard of living so that they don’t have to decide between feeding their children dinner or making rent.” The mayor has highlighted his signing of a wage theft prevention ordinance in 2015.

Meanwhile, morale at the call center remains low, say the workers. “One person a week is quitting because they just can’t take it any more” said one.

A spokesperson for the city did not respond to a request for comment.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....