Roughly 80,000 NYC public employees who have been working remotely since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic will start returning to offices in early May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday.
The number of workers returning to offices represents less than a third of all city employees. The majority of the approximately 300,000-person city workforce never had the option to work remotely due to the responsibilities of their jobs -- these include "front line" positions such as sanitation workers, police, and city park employees.
"The folks who work in offices will begin to return on May 3rd," de Blasio said at his daily press briefing. "We're going to have strict safety measures in place. We're going to use all of the tools we've learned about distancing, about ventilation, the right way to lay out work spaces."
De Blasio said the change "would send a powerful message about this city moving forward."
At the beginning of March 2021, only 10% of Manhattan office workers were back in their office buildings, according to the pro-business group The Partnership for New York City. The dearth of office workers has had a ripple effect on the economy, impacting everything from food service to MTA revenue. The Partnership for New York City projects that roughly half of Manhattan's 1 million office workers are expected to return in September, the NY Times reports.
City workers began receiving emails about the impending policy change last week. One of the emails, which a city employee shared with Gothamist, said there "will likely be a staggered return to offices. For now, it is fair for you to assume that it will be a phased return to the office and not everyone will be coming back on the same day, at the same time.”
The city has also set up five dedicated vaccination clinics for public employees, according to information sent to staffers. Workers will not be required to be vaccinated before returning to offices, de Blasio said on Tuesday.
Face masks will not be mandatory for everyone at all times, but de Blasio said on Tuesday that "we believe people should be wearing face coverings at all appropriate times. There are people who work in settings where there is really no one around them, and that's a somewhat different reality."
Deputy Mayor Laura Anglin added that "if an employee cannot socially-distance, they will be required to wear a face mask."
One employee who wanted to stay anonymous because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media said he questioned if the city administration is creatively interpreting the state’s requirement that vaccine-eligible government workers must be “public-facing.”
The city’s March 18th memo to employees said “public-facing employees are either required to have in-person contact with members of the public or with coworkers, or are unable to work remotely. This includes employees who have been working remotely and are required to return to the office in May.”
“First we're told, ‘people are going to go back May 3rd.’ And then we get an email saying...any city employee who's required to work in the office is now eligible. So they're triggering our [vaccine] eligibility by sending us back May 3rd,” the city employee said. “It's sort of a solution to a problem that doesn't exist because people have been working fine from home.”
He added, “it's really sort of a perversion of what the plain reading of the state's rule is and arbitrarily putting city employees first.”
The leader of the DC 37 union, which represents workers including many call center and social service employees, told the Times he estimated about 20% of the union's 100,000 members who work for the city have gotten at least the first dose of the vaccine.
The city employee who spoke to Gothamist said he’s most concerned about the lack of information about how the return to offices will be carried out and why it’s now necessary.
“We don't know how many days a week we're going to be going back. We don't know (if) everybody is going to be in the office. We just got no information to the extent that it's 50% or less than 50% is back in the office,” he said. “There's a real sense of ‘what's the point of sending us back?’
He added, “if we’re working fine from home, and we're not going to be having in-person meetings and we're not going to have everyone physically in the office anyway, then what's the point?”
With John Del Signore