With coronavirus cases on the rise again due to the omicron variant, more city workers are speaking out against former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policy, first implemented in September, that required them to go back to the office. Some say they're hopeful that new Mayor Eric Adams will be more receptive to their calls for flexible work-from-home rules.
But so far, the new mayor has yet to commit to any major changes, arguing that going to the office is good for the city's flagging economy.
In the days before he left City Hall, de Blasio doubled down on his commitment to the mandate, reiterating his stance that working in person makes people more collaborative and productive.
“We’re trying to avoid the relationship we had with de Blasio,” said Jeremiah Cedeño, an employee at the city’s Human Resources Administration and co-founder of the group City Workers for Justice, which is advocating for a new approach to working from home. “The hope is [Adams] can be a collaborative mayor and we can work together.”
Henry Garrido, executive director of the union DC37, the city's largest public sector union, has also spoken out against the in-person mandate since it took effect in the fall.
During a public appearance laying out his plan to combat COVID-19 last week, Adams said he is re-examining de Blasio’s policy, given the current COVID-19 surge. He said his team is meeting with leaders of unions and city agencies to discuss the issue. “Those places where we can effectively do our jobs remotely, we will be in conversation to examine that and I’m open to that,” Adams said.
But, he added, “as soon as we see a decline in this surge we are going to have people back into the office spaces.”
Adams said, in general, he wants New Yorkers to be at the office as much as possible to support businesses that rely on office traffic.
“That accountant in his or her office also goes down to the local restaurant,” Adams said. “They encourage the business traveler to come into the city … Our financial ecosystem is determined by people not being home but being in the office spaces.”
Cedeño countered that when people work from home, they contribute more to the local businesses in their own neighborhoods. “What type of economy are we stimulating?” he asked.
Several city workers who spoke to WNYC/Gothamist, but who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said their primary concern at the moment is their own safety and wellbeing.
“We’re all just taking Zoom meetings from our desks, but we have to come into the office,” said an employee with the city health department. “We have been told the reason we do this is to be more productive, but all it's doing is increasing anxiety among staff."
Guidance issued by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services in September that was obtained by WNYC/Gothamist indicated that city employees who either have symptoms of COVID-19, have tested positive for the virus, or have been in close contact with someone who’s positive should stay home. But reports from city workers suggest that the burden of proof for meeting that criteria is sometimes high.
“The way this has been implemented has been horrendous,” the health department employee said. “People are being forced to come into the office even if they have had a known exposure and are feeling symptoms if they don’t have a doctor’s note.”
The worker added that’s only the case for some people. How the rules are implemented “depends on the agency, supervisor, and interpretation of guidance,” the employee said.
In an email exchange regarding one employee’s request that was shared with WNYC/Gothamist, the HR Central Hotline for the city health department said that if the person wanted to stay home to care for their dependent who was sick with COVID-19, they would have to provide a copy of the dependent’s birth certificate and a positive lab result from a COVID test.
Other city workers have said that, under de Blasio, they had trouble being approved for reasonable accommodations requested under the Americans With Disabilities Act if the accommodations involved working from home.
A desk worker with the Sanitation Department who is in remission from cancer said their doctor wrote a note saying they should work from home during the pandemic because they have a weakened immune system.
The worker said they have been allowed to work from home so far, but they claimed that about once a month they receive an email or call from HR saying they will have to go back to the office the following month.
“They mentioned de Blasio, and said that it’s a priority for him for employees to be in the office and it’s non-negotiable,” the worker said of one phone call. “They told me easily a dozen times that after X date, they will not be accepting COVID-related reasonable accommodations anymore.”
Neither the mayor’s office nor the city health department responded to requests for comment on Monday about workers’ concerns over the implementation of in-person work requirements at different agencies.
An employee with the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection said they are taking frequent at-home tests every time they feel COVID-like symptoms or have been exposed to someone who tested positive. In recent weeks, lines at COVID testing sites have grown, as have the wait times for results.
“I’ve been spending so much money on rapid tests,” said the worker. “It’s adding up. I’m so stressed about money right now.”
Adams said last week that measures such as masks, social distancing and booster shots can help employees work in person while remaining safe. But City Workers for Justice is pushing for legislation in Albany that would require all New York City agencies to create comprehensive “telework” policies. A bill was introduced during the last legislative session and has garnered support among several city and state representatives amid the latest coronavirus surge.