Married caretakers of the Centre Village condominium building in Minneapolis were fired and told to vacate their apartment after the husband staged several union rallies at the property management firm he worked for.
In the complaint filed Feb. 1 with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) accused Toronto-based FirstService Residential of Minnesota of violating U.S. fair labor laws by retaliating against employees for participating in legal union activities.
The SEIU said the company's actions not only caused the husband, Kevin Borowske, 56, to lose his job, but also that of Borowske's wife, Larisa. The company also is evicting the couple from the firm's apartment where they have lived for nine years.
FirstService denied the allegations.
"The Borowskes were not terminated for any protected activity," FirstService Executive Vice President Andy Gittleman said in an email. "The separations were in line with longstanding company policies regarding job performance and usage of the provided housing."
He declined to comment further, noting it was against company policy "to discuss internal human resource matters externally."
In an interview, Kevin Borowske said he and his wife were fired Jan. 19 after they were called into the lounge at Centre Village. A manager told the couple they were fired, requested their keys and cellphones and said the pair must move out of their company-provided apartment by Feb. 28.
Borowske said they were not given reasons for the terminations, but he is convinced the firings are related to his extensive union work and a past fight with the company over employee wages. "I am sure [FirstService is] just retaliating because they don't want the union in and this is one way for them to union bust," he said.
Because the Borowskes signed noncompete clauses when they first became FirstService employees, they cannot take up similar caretaker jobs at other condo buildings for one year.
Making matters more complicated, Borowske said he went to find a new place to live Thursday, but was told by one apartment manager that he could not lease to the Borowskes because they were now unemployed. An offer to prepay rent was rebuffed.
"I'm not sure what we are going to do," he said.
Greg Nammacher, president of SEIU Local 26, said he has never seen a case quite like this where someone loses his job and because of that, his spouse also loses a job and they lose their home.
"That is a ridiculous amount of power that the company has over the people who are providing labor," Nammacher said. "It just is infuriating."
Labor officials expect the case to be watched closely, given the complicated mix of firing, housing and noncompete clause concerns.
Noncompete employment agreements have garnered concern from the Federal Reserve Bank, Labor Department and legislative officials, who worry the contracts have become ubiquitous and negatively impact low-wage workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor and Minnesota Legislature are both reviewing the practice. Despite some push back from employment attorneys who also testified during a Minnesota House Labor and Industry Finance and Policy Committee hearing, the committee approved a bill that would make noncompete agreements unenforceable.
For now, the Borowskes will not have to worry about their noncompete agreement. FirstService's Human Resource Director Karen Stenoien sent an email Friday saying the company no longer planned to enforce the agreement. The decision came after an article ran in the Minnesota Reformer on Thursday and came 15 days after Stenoien had first presented the couple with termination letters and copies of their noncompete contracts.
"This is amazing," Borowske said, noting that he had felt stuck. He still worries that all his former co-workers remain bound by their noncompetes.
Borowske worked for a Minnesota subsidiary of Canadian firm FirstService Residential, which employs thousands and oversees 6,000 properties, making it the largest residential property manager in North America. The Minnesota arm manages more than 525 properties and employs 650 building caretakers, front desk clerks and other employees in the Twin Cities.
Borowske said local FirstService Residential workers have been organizing since spring 2022, but can't get company officials to meet or recognize them as a union.
Since spring, Borowske has led several employee marches and protests outside FirstService Residential corporate offices in Bloomington and Minneapolis and at various residential properties managed by FirstService, including ones at Centre Village, Nicollet Avenue and Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
In July 2020 he filed a federal class action lawsuit against FirstService Residential Minnesota, claiming it committed wage theft by refusing to pay him and 100 other workers proper overtime rates. According to court records, the company agreed in February 2021 to pay $225,000 in back wages and fees.
In June 2022, FirstService issued employees documents saying they were not allowed to discuss unionizing at work. In that case, the SEIU filed with the NLRB an unfair labor practices complaint against the company and recently won a ruling that its case had "merit."
The company's latest labor battle should be determined by the NLRB in the coming months.