Editor’s note: There are corrections for this story at the end of it.
For Robert, life as a doorman at a new luxury condominium entails the usual mundane and managerial work for which members of his profession are known. He accepts deliveries for residents in his building, helps them move unwieldy packages and luggage, signs guests in and out, and sees to it that everyone is greeted with a smile.
But, in certain ways, the job is different for Robert. He is not unionized. He does not receive benefits, raises, or paid holidays from his employers. He gets overtime only “when they [the management company] feel like it.” He does not wear a uniform, apart from a suit he bought himself.
The biggest difference of all? Robert works in Brooklyn.
As New Yorkers fleeing Manhattan’s skyrocketing prices and congestion have streamed across the East River in the last decade, developers have scrambled to keep up, erecting pricey condos with names like the Lotus and Aqua in a play for residents who have brought certain Manhattan expectations with them. High on the list is having a doorman.
The great experiment of transplanting doormen to the outer-boroughs has been underway since Williamsburg’s first full-service condo, the Gretsch, opened in 2005. An estimated half dozen new luxury developments have been built and at least 15 more are under construction, said David Maundrell, the owner of Brooklyn brokerage Apartments and Lofts. The experiment has not been without its hitches.
“What’s happening with these new developments is they hire a management company and they bring in doormen, but the service is nowhere near… what you would get in Manhattan, where you can afford to have higher maintenance charges so you can afford to have a higher class of doorman,” Mr. Maundrell said. “To have $800 common charges on a condo in Brooklyn is a lot of money and in Manhattan that’s peanuts.”
Williamsburg condominium buyers pay between $450 to $1,100 per square foot for their apartments and a full-time doorman raises an apartment’s value by between 15 to 25 percent. The convenience of having an around-the-clock doorman to help with groceries or collect Fresh Direct orders costs a minimum of $130,000 to $150,000 annually for a building. Whether paying Manhattan prices results in Manhattan services depends on the management company, and most in Brooklyn are not union.
“Brooklyn can’t afford union doormen,” Mr. Maundrell said. “I’m sure there are circumstances like my own where non-union doormen are as good, though, but I guarantee you that overall, if it’s a union building, service is much better than it is in a non-union building.”
That’s why just a few short months after taking his first doorman job at a Williamsburg condo that opened last summer, Robert plans to look for work at a union building in Manhattan. “That’s what I’m going to do after Christmas, because I need a union job,” he said. “I’m at the age where I can’t be hopping around from job to job anymore.
“I’d never been a doorman before, but now I can walk into any building in Manhattan with confidence and get a job with a building that belongs to the union, because I have the training.”
Being a doorman in Manhattan—where the union representing building workers, 32BJ, retains a tight grip—is a coveted career. Union doormen typically earn $38,000 annually, excluding Christmas bonuses, receive overtime, and get good retirement benefits, making the job—especially in Upper East Side co-ops—hard to come by, according to Peter Bearman, the head of Columbia University’s Sociology Department and author of Doormen.
“I would think that they [Manhattan doorman jobs] are both more demanding and potentially more lucrative,” Mr. Bearman said. “Just as there are some universities ranked above others, some buildings are ranked above others; and, on average, the Manhattan buildings are higher status than the Brooklyn buildings. That may make Brooklyn a better place to live, but it might not make it a better place to be a doorman.
“One question is whether these doormen are represented by the union or whether they are more like security guards,” he added.
The local branch of Service Employees International, 32BJ, represents 30,000 apartment-building workers in the five boroughs, one-third of whom are doormen. Of these workers, 23,000 are spread between the 25,000 buildings in Manhattan; 3,600 work in 575 buildings in Queens; and 2,100 in 275 buildings in Brooklyn. Matt Nerzig, a 32BJ spokesman, said New York was a “90 percent union market citywide."
Once a worker has a union contract, the salaries and benefits are the same regardless of the borough.
Todd Chalmers, 38, an African-American concierge at the Gretsch building, said there are more opportunities for African-American and Latino-American building workers in Brooklyn because residents are more mellow.
“Brooklyn is more diverse, it’s more of a melting pot, and the tenants are more laid back," Mr. Chalmers said. "You have a few tenants with a Manhattan mentality because they came from Manhattan, but most of the time it’s more laid back … none of that starched-collar, standing-on-attention-at-the-door stuff. They talk to us like we’re bartenders, sometimes we’re their counselors."
Mr. Chalmers has worked under two separate management companies since he started working at the Gretsch when it first opened three years ago and has earned a salary matching a union member’s under each. Though satisfied with the current management company, he and the seven other staff members have submitted a petition to the condo board for union membership.
“If the union comes to a building, you sign up for it," Mr. Chalmers said. "Management might be mad but not much they can do about it except pay us a lot of money.
“There are more benefits with unions, more security and I plan on retiring on this.”
CORRECTION: The original article misspelled Mr. Chalmer’s last name. Also, the original article misidentified him as a security guard. And the original article incorrectly quoted him as saying he was the first doorman in Williamsburg. What Mr. Chalmer’s actually said was: "I’d say I was the first or the second if you count Shaefer Landing, but they are more like security gaurds, so the first." The Observer regrets the errors.
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