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Workers Demand Living Wage From Mall
The Queens Courier
Claudia Cruz

December 29, 2009
View the Original Article

The holiday wish list for the owners and stores at Queens Center Mall most likely included increased sales. It probably didn’t include being called a “publicly subsidized poverty wage center.”

Retailers at Queens Center Mall and its property owner, The Macerich Company, have been accused by elected officials, community organizers and residents of not paying a living wage to the majority of the mall’s approximately 3,100 workers, despite Macerich’s receipt of around $48 million in city tax abatements during the last five years.

“Queens Center Mall is among the most profitable malls across the country and made sales of about $876 per square foot in 2008,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of the Jackson Heights community organization Make the Road New York (MRNY), adding the mall has close to one million feet of leasable space. “Macerich could lower rents and still make money so that the [retail] tenants could pay more to the workers.”

In a report issued by MRNY and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), titled “Queens Center Mall: A Poverty Center in Elmhurst,” at a protest on Sunday, December 20, a survey of workers at 25 stores found the average wage to be around $7.72. The survey also found that one restaurant, Ranch 1, offered new hires $6.75, a violation of New York State labor law. Last summer’s New York State minimum increased to $7.25.

“An $11 an hour wage would enable a full-time worker to support themselves and their family without relying on the government,” Friedman said.

MRNY and RWDSU recommended that Macerich include requirements in its lease agreements stipulating that tenants provide a living wage, which they calculate at $10 with benefits or $11.50 without benefits. They want to see Queens Center Mall provide useful and defined public spaces for the community and respect worker’s right to organize a union.

Christine Romero, spokesperson for Macerich, said that as a publicly traded company, “we are not able to share the proprietary details of our retailers' leases. It would also not be appropriate for us to comment on behalf of our retailers.”

Built in 1973, Queens Center Mall, located on the intersections of 59th Avenue and Woodhaven and Queens Boulevards, was purchased by Macerich in 1995. From 2002 to 2004, the structure underwent a massive renovation and added approximately 380,000 square feet and an adjacent parking structure.

According to Friedman, beginning in 2004, the mall entered into the Industrial Commercial Incentive Program – now replaced by the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP) – for a tax abatement benefit period of 15 years. The MRNY/RWDSU report expects Queens Center Mall to receive a benefit of $129 million during that time.

By year’s end 2008, the mall stores occupied 97.5 percent of the mall according to a Macerich press release.

On July 30, 2009, Macerich sold a 49 percent stake of Queens Center Mall to Cadillac Fairview Corporation, a Canadian-based company and unit of the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, for $150 million and absorption of the $167 million in mortgage debt. In their third quarter financial filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Santa Monica-based company reported a final sell price of approximately $152.7 million.

The Macerich Company, which operates as a real estate investment trust (REIT) and does not have to pay federal income tax, provided that at least 90 percent of taxable income goes back to shareholders.

A spokesperson for the New York City Economic Development Corporation said an ICAP development project that receives tax abatements from the city has “no discretionary benefit tied” to any commercial project that “they or any other developer build in these distressed areas.”

“We do not have any flexibility to decide which project gets living wage or public space requirements,” the spokesperson said. “Jobs are created, the area sees economic development, and shoppers in Queens stay in Queens instead of going to New Jersey.”

The spokesperson added that though the city may not receive real estate taxes, the city receives employment and sales taxes.

The MRNY and RWDSU said they will continue their campaign to require retailers at Queens Center Mall to pay a living wage with benefits, respect their employees’ right to organize a union without threat or intimidation, and secure community space to provide much needed community services, such as job training, youth services, ESL classes, financial counseling and more.

Queens Center Mall spokesperson Dawn Simon declared in an email statement that groups like Latino Share, a cancer survivor support and educational group, LaGuardia Community College, Community Board 4, New York Blood Center, and the Queens Economic Development Center consistently use space within the mall.

However, the local leaders and residents would like to see wages rise.

“Despite its success,” said Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, who addressed the protesters, “the mall continues to pay the majority of their workers, the same people who have contributed to the mall’s success with their hard work, the minimum wage rate, which forces them and their families to live below the federal poverty line.”

“These workers have done their job; now its time for the folks operating the Queens Center Mall to do their part and make right by their workers and the community,” she said.