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The Hard Goodbye

One’s relationship with a super is vital. He is the captain of the ship – the person everyone counts on in an emergency. He is also the caretaker of the property, the one who meets with contractors and city officials to deal with various concerns. Finally, he is the person who supervises the staff, oversees projects, and (often) does private work for the residents. Calling him “super” is usually no misnomer.

But what happens when the relationship goes sour? “There could be chronic issues such as excessive absenteeism, poor job performance, failure to carry out duties, and the more major types of infractions such as stealing,” says Howard Rothschild, president of the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB), the organization that works with the building workers union, Local 32BJ, in negotiating contracts.

In most cases, the board’s first step should be to make a good-faith effort to work out issues. It may try and clarify expected duties and help the super create a realistic timetable for accomplishing goals. The board might also try sending the super back to school, attending seminars given by 32BJ and the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC).

In fact, most boards are reluctant to pull the trigger on the super – after all, he and his family live there and he is a part of their everyday lives. “Our last option would be to try to get rid of anybody,” says Michael, the board secretary of a recently converted 130-plus-unit co-op in the South Bronx, who asked that only his middle name be used because of ongoing staff issues. “We are working on trying to figure out the best way to improve the super’s performance.”

But sometimes, things don’t work out – and then the superintendent and the co-op or condo for which he works must endure “the hard goodbye.”

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

The process of terminating the super begins with what is colloquially described as “writing him up.” This can take a relatively short or relatively long time. “Documenting incidents is key,” says Nadir Maoui, vice president of a 150-plus-unit co-op in Sunnyside, Queens, that recently fired its superintendent. She notes that her board spent almost two years preparing a list of offenses. “We went from [oral] warnings to write-ups with the union, and we went as far as suspension,” she explains. “If you go for union arbitration with no [prior] warning [to the super] whatsoever, the first thing they’ll ask is to give him a chance. You have to show you gave him warnings and can’t deal with him anymore. Otherwise, it’s your word against the super’s.”

Once you have objective documentation – as detailed in the current union contract (see box on opposite page)– you have five business days after firing the super to provide him with a written statement of reasons for dismissal, and 30 days from then to get him out of his apartment. (In exceptional cases, the contract allows for immediate vacancy.) That 30 days gets put on hold if the super asks for a mediation with the Joint Industry Grievance Committee, part of the alliance between 32BJ and the RAB. Many times, at this juncture, the super will try to fight the firing personally by rallying support among the residents. Getting signatures on a petition is a common tactic – although board members say it usually carries little weight because their decision is generally based on information the residents don’t have.

If grievance mediation doesn’t work, the case goes to the joint Office of the Contract Arbitrator at 7 Penn Plaza in Manhattan. There, an independent arbitrator determines if a firing was justified. Boards are represented by RAB attorneys, provided free as part of a building’s annual dues. RAB lawyers are also available to answer questions before it gets to that point.

The super is entitled to severance pay – a minimum of four weeks’ salary and a maximum of eleven weeks after eight years or more of service. “Often what happens in these cases,” says Rothschild, “is there is some sort of negotiated settlement: ‘We’ll give you a certain amount of time in the apartment and a certain amount of additional severance pay,’ and the super leaves.”

The union acknowledges this is common practice. “There certainly will be many cases where the union is going to fight very hard to protect the rights of the building workers, and in some cases that might come into conflict with perceptions of the board,” says a union spokesperson. “But we feel we do everything we can to ensure that there’s a working situation and conditions that keeps both partners happy.”

Once an accord is reached, the union expects a super to honor it. At Maoui’s building, where the board reached a severance-plus agreement, the dismissed super “didn’t honor his end of the bargain – he was supposed to move out August 2 and didn’t. That pissed off the union.”

Getting It Right

The apartment issue is, indeed, a big one. “One of my supers was fired just recently and he refused to vacate his apartment,” says Arthur I. Weinstein, a vice president of the CNYC and an attorney in private practice. “The union sustained the firing, and the super still refused to leave.” But the ousted employee still “has some legal protection while he’s in occupancy. You can’t lock him out. You have to use the legal [eviction] process in addition to the contract process.” Meanwhile, the old super remains in his unit – even as the new super begins work. In Weinstein’s story, the new super was a promoted handyman, who also happened to have an apartment in the building. If not, the new super would have had to commute. Maoui’s board, facing a super who might not move out immediately, frankly told prospective hires that the co-op was willing to rent the new super an apartment nearby in the interim.

If there is one overarching point to remember, it is the severity of a situation where a job and a home are ending simultaneously. Boards – possibly because a firing is so devastating and also because they delegate the actual action to management – “can get detached from it and their emotions shut down. For whatever reason, they become hard cases,” says Peter Lehr, the director of property management at Kaled.

“You have to make sure the super is let go in a humane way,” observes Maoui, the board member. Weinstein recalls a super who had a stroke. The doctors determined that he would never fully recover to do the full range of services, including hauling garbage cans up a set of stairs. The board was forced to retire him but did it as humanely as possible.

Lehr agrees that sensitivity is important. He recently fired a super, who then said to the manager: “I’m not going to contest it, you got me, I understand. But I can’t change my kid out in school – I’ve got to have until the end of June.” Lehr says that was a reasonable request. “Even though the employee [was being terminated], you still have to remember [that] it affects the whole family’s lives. You have to respect that.” Indeed, as with any other sort of breakup, it is important that you get it right.

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