How N.Y.C. Struggled to Protect the Workers Who Still Had to Show Up

NEW YORK — For two weeks after the first confirmed case of coronavirus emerged in New York, 33,000 city employees were still punching in and out of work by resting their hands on a shared scanner. Sanitizer was placed nearby. It often ran out.

How N.Y.C. Struggled to Protect the Workers Who Still Had to Show Up

Some city workers, concerned about infection, took to wearing masks and gloves on the job. At least one agency ordered them to stop because they might induce panic.

“Staff are NOT permitted to use masks or gloves while serving clients,” read an email sent on March 12 to members of the city’s Human Resources Administration.

That same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would begin a work-from-home policy for municipal employees, even though many of its agencies were not capable of implementing it.

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a slew of challenges that are unprecedented in modern history, forcing governments around the world to take extraordinary measures to try to curb the outbreak as the number of cases has surpassed 2.4 million.

New York City, like many other governments, adopted policies that adhered to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. As the virus quickly spread, city and state officials took a more aggressive posture: Large gatherings were banned, schools were closed and businesses were ordered to have their workers telecommute.

But when it came to its own huge workforce of more than 300,000 full-time employees, New York City faced a different challenge: how to keep essential levels of government functioning without unduly exposing workers to the virus.

“We have less flexibility because our people have to be where they have to be when they have to be,” de Blasio said at a news conference last month. “Our first responders, our teachers, our health experts, you know, our nurses, our doctors have to be where we need them.”

City Hall officials defended the way that the de Blasio administration has balanced the need to keep the city running while protecting its workers.

“All of our guidance to the staff was consistent with what the science and the situation dictated,” Michael Lanza, a spokesman for the city health department, said.

Yet in some instances, the city seemed slow to adapt. Hand scanners remained in use for city employees to punch in and out of work until March 15, three days after the mayor had declared a state of emergency in New York.

In early March, the state was recommending quarantine for anyone who had been in close contact with someone who had the virus. Yet the city health department was advising its workers that if they were exposed to the virus but had no symptoms, they should “be reporting to work as usual,” according to a message to employees reviewed by The New York Times.

And because the city did not have enough protective gear for front line workers, District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union, in early April purchased 125,000 N95 masks for its members, 80 of whom have died from the virus.

At least 209 city workers have died because of the coronavirus, a death toll that includes 63 employees of the Education Department, 33 employees of city hospitals and 31 in the Police Department.

The rate of deaths per capita among the city’s workforce is lower than the city as a whole, but the workforce is also significantly younger: About 5% of city workers are over 65, versus more than 14% of New Yorkers. (COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been disproportionately fatal for those over 65, who make up nearly two-thirds of the deaths in the city.)

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the city’s teachers’ union, suggested that thousands of city school workers may have been exposed to the virus or spread it over a critical two-week period through the second week in March, when schools remained open despite pressure to close them, and then for another week when teachers received in-school training for distance learning.

Asked whether he blamed those decisions for the number of dead school employees, Mulgrew hesitated. “I would like to see the science behind it, but logic would say that had something to do with it,” he said.

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Thousands more have been sickened. In a one-week period, from late March to early April, there were 5,804 employees on excused leave, which includes sick leave — seven times more than during the same period last year, according to city data that surveyed a little more than half of the workforce.

At the Police Department, 18% of the officers were out sick by mid-April. At the Fire Department, 23% of its emergency medical responders and 16% of its firefighters were out sick.

“Our city is going through an unprecedented crisis and we owe an extraordinary debt to the city workers helping us,” de Blasio said in a statement. “These are our co-workers, our fellow public servants, people we know personally.

“Each loss hurts and we mourn as though they were part of our family,” he continued. “We’ll never forget those who dedicated their lives to our city, and we’re doing everything in our power to protect every single one of our public servants.”

The city’s challenges in responding to the virus also extended to the administration’s transition to having its workers telecommute.

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To keep a city the size of New York running smoothly requires that an enormous number of people do face-to-face and hands-on work, even during a pandemic-driven shutdown.

Hospital clerical staff had to show up to process medical records. Those who worked on public benefits had to be present to answer phones. The city also lacked the secure servers and laptops that many employees would need to access sensitive information from home.

And the city had no telecommuting policy, making the transition difficult.

Deanne B. Criswell, the commissioner of emergency management, acknowledged in March that telecommuting was “not something that the city has done before”; the city had to write the policy from scratch, she said.

“I can’t speak to why there wasn’t one put in place prior to this, but we are writing the telework policy right now,” Criswell said then.

The city had to re-evaluate who was an essential employee: workers involved in responding to the COVID-19 emergency; people whose work protects and saves lives such as 911 operators and utility workers; and others who operate the systems and critical equipment that allow the government to be productive and generate revenue.

Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokeswoman, said that New York had broad plans in place before the crisis to ensure the city could still operate in an emergency.

“In this unprecedented crisis, we have managed to quickly mobilize the city workforce to adapt to the current reality,” said Feyer, adding that the number of city employees working from home is “nothing short of incredible.”

By the middle of April, the city was requiring one-third of its workforce — emergency responders, hospital staff and sanitation workers, but also tens of thousands of people who handle records, cook in cafeterias and tend to parks — to show up to work, city officials said.

Nearly two-thirds of city workers are people of color, a number that is even higher in many front-line and health care agencies. More than 80% of the employees of the city’s hospital system, all of whom have been deemed essential, are nonwhite. So are a majority of police officers.

Henry Garrido, the head of District Council 37, said he felt pride in the work of essential city employees, but questioned the cost to their health. He characterized the federal government’s inability to provide access to protective gear for front-line workers “unforgivable” and added that the city’s efforts were “simply not enough.”

“Our members are still dying from exposure, and we cannot undo the damage that has been done to our members and their families,” he said.

Even when a city agency wants to have more of its staff working from home, the logistics can be daunting. Social workers for the Administration for Children Services cannot investigate child abuse claims using video conferencing, officials pointed out. Sanitation workers have to toss bulging trash bags onto the back of garbage trucks. Workers who maintain the water supply must access the aquifers.

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“One of the challenges we have is converting client services that are delivered from office settings to be delivered remotely,” said Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, who oversees the city’s homeless shelters as well as its benefits offices.

Functions that have been hard to make remote include processing applications and receiving phone calls. Banks said that more than 5,000 employees of the agency were still reporting to work, and about 9,400 were working from home.

At the Buildings Department, about 40% of its nearly 2,000-person staff were still working in the field or in the office — including inspectors and field engineers, with the rest working from home.

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At the Parks Department, about 90% of nearly 8,000 full-time workers have been deemed essential, and three-quarters of the staff was still reporting to work — maintaining the green space and also enforcing social distancing rules.

Other nonuniformed agencies, like the Department of Environmental Protection and the Finance Department, for example, also have a large number of essential employees.

Even though city schools have been closed since mid-March, about 11,500 employees at the Education Department show up to work each day, according to a spokeswoman, out of a usual full-time staff that approaches 150,000.

The agency has been operating centers for the children of emergency medical workers and health care workers, and has also provided more than 3 million takeout meals for children and adults at hundreds of sites over the last month.

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The city’s shifting guidance regarding its workers and face coverings, which tracked with the recommendations from federal health agencies, also may have left people at risk.

On Feb. 5, the Health Department issued guidance that face masks were not warranted for workers not involved in health care, “even for those with frequent interaction with the general public.”

The guidance added that “no coronavirus-specific precautions are recommended for interactions with the general public, including asymptomatic travelers” from parts of the world where the virus was prevalent.

When federal guidance changed at the end of March, city officials said, so did their recommendations for staff.

“The health guidance was that masks were not required, and there was a concern about panicking other staff as well as clients,” said Banks, who also oversees the Human Resources Administration, in explaining the March 12 email forbidding masks.

Last weekend, de Blasio mandated that all city workers who come in contact with the public while on duty wear face coverings, and said that the city would provide as many face coverings as necessary.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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