This letter is written by public sector workers who are concerned by the de Blasio administration’s rush to bring City workers who have been working remotely back to their worksites on May 3, 2021. We believe that the decision to send workers back on this date has not been informed by public health guidelines and will endanger workers, including those already reporting to worksites, and other community members at a crucial moment in the pandemic. We demand the return be delayed and any new date be set based on clear metrics that demonstrate a significantly reduced risk of infection.
In his final State of the City Address, Mayor de Blasio set May 2021 as a target for City workers who are currently working remotely to return to their worksites, and on March 23, we learned via the New York Times that we would be required to return beginning on May 3. As City and other public sector employees, we are eager to get past this pandemic, fully reopen our in-person services for New York City residents, and get back to some level of normalcy. The negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are often felt more acutely by public sector employees, whether in our need to interact with the public or fear of potential layoffs due to fiscal shortfalls on city and state levels. However, we are wary of the rush to reopen and force employees to return to the office, especially with such a lack of transparent communication to workers about how the administration is making its decisions.
Throughout this crisis, city and state leaders, as well as the heads of city agencies, have repeatedly prioritized reopening over the safety of our colleagues. The delay to close and keep the city closed by both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo caused the virus to rage out of control in the spring of 2020 and resulted in thousands of unnecessary infections and deaths.
On March 22, 2020, the city and state finally “shut down.” But not for everyone: many workers, including public sector workers, never stopped reporting to their worksites throughout the pandemic. They were required to work in offices and field sites where many became sick and to ride trains or buses at a time when to do so was a terrifying proposition; in the transit system alone, “around 1,500 transit workers” had fallen sick, and 41 had died, as of April 8, 2020. As more City workers have returned to the office or the field, including during another spike in infections in winter 2020-2021, we have been told by both elected officials and the leaders of our institutions that we are safe and that they are “following the science.” This is in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary.
According to the New York Times, nine top officials from the NYS Department of Health have resigned amid complaints of arrogance and interference, including Governor Cuomo announcing “major changes in pandemic policy” at news conferences, “and then asking them to match their health guidance to the announcements.” In light of accusations such as these, it is impossible to know whether or not recommendations from the Department of Health are tainted by the governor’s own agendas. Governor Cuomo favors taking his cues from lobbyists, corporate consultants, and hospital executives — groups who prioritize capital and who do not have the needs of City workers in mind.
Here in the city, Dr. Oxiris Barbot resigned as NYC Department of Health Commissioner in August 2020, citing Mayor de Blasio’s mishandling of the virus and failure to heed advice from public health experts. On March 15, a week before the May 3 return was announced, Mayor de Blasio told NY1 that the city could start to consider reopening once 5 million New York City residents were fully vaccinated, and “[certainly] not for the first half of the year.” The Mayor projected that five million New Yorkers will have been vaccinated by June. As of April 18, two million city residents have been fully vaccinated. The current pause on administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may further delay the projected timeline for vaccinations, especially for vulnerable communities. Taking all this into consideration, we are skeptical that our political leaders are taking public health realities into account when making decisions about dramatically increasing the number of City workers at work sites and on transit in less than two weeks.
Reopening before there is greater vaccine adoption and low transmission rates is irresponsible at best and catastrophic at worst. With new strains appearing regularly, the rush to reopen could contribute to another wave of infections and threaten herd immunity, a danger that the City’s current Health Commissioner has raised. Sending tens of thousands of City workers back to the office endangers not only us, but our colleagues who have already been in the office or the field and will now be exposed to more people; other members of our households, including children who cannot yet be vaccinated; other New Yorkers commuting on crowded rush hour transit; and the members of the public we serve. This does not even take into account workers with children at home, who are unable to return to school. It has become clear that more than worker and public safety, our elected officials have prioritized the needs of capital and the most wealthy among us. The message is that profit comes before people.
As frontline staff, we demand reopening be delayed until at least September 1, and a new date be set when:
- Any eligible New Yorker who wants a vaccine can easily access an appointment or a walk-in, as barriers to getting an appointment still exist for many otherwise eligible residents;
- Daily case numbers are below the City’s own target of 550 on a rolling average for 14 days;
- 75% of adults in NYC have been fully vaccinated, which is considered a threshold for herd immunity;
- Current ventilation systems at all city buildings are tested for their efficiency and upgraded to appropriate standards, and expanded outdoor space is made available for workers to access. Many of us work in facilities with antiquated HVAC systems, poor air circulation, and/or windows that do not open; if we are being told to work on-site during this pandemic, we feel the city and the state should be prepared to spare no expense in ensuring our and our clients’ safety.
Furthermore, there are numerous reports, such as a June 23, 2020 article in the New York Times, that “productivity has remained at pre-pandemic levels, or even gone up.” This supports the idea that more workers could continue working from home, at least on a part-time basis – thus freeing up space on public transit, not to mention our city’s roadways – without any negative impact on productivity. Many public sector workers have been putting in even longer hours than usual while working remotely, and our productivity will actually be limited by returning to the office but not being able to hold meetings. Remote policies are not new to the public sector; the federal government has successfully instituted telework policies for many agencies. If adopted for City workers, hundreds of thousands of people could continue performing their jobs with the increased efficiency that results from not having to spend hours a day enduring exhausting commutes, and would experience an improved work-life balance.
The administration needs to seek input and buy-in from City workers before developing a reopening plan and setting targets. No practices mandated by the return to the office should be in violation of our collective bargaining agreements. Staggered hours, flex time, compressed time, safe working conditions, leave, and reasonable accommodations should be negotiated by our unions if they are not already covered under existing contracts and labor law. So far, we have not received any assurances that such negotiations are being conducted. We hope that leadership will take seriously the demands and concerns listed in this letter before proceeding with rushed timelines to “reopen” the city further.