New York City municipal workers are bracing for a major shift starting Monday when thousands return to work in person for the first time since the early days of the pandemic, a move Mayor Bill de Blasio said would position New York as a national leader in pandemic recovery despite deep reservations among some in the 300,000 strong workforce.

While the city began the summer buoyed by increasing vaccination rates and the promise of a return to normalcy, the swiftly moving delta variant has chipped away at that optimism and brought a fall full of uncertainty, a shift some city workers said the city has failed to address, with the mayor putting politics over public health.

“This is all political. It’s pandering to the real estate sector,” said Jeremiah Cedeño, who has worked for two years in outreach positions including with the Census 2020 team. He is a co-founder of New York City Workers for Justice, a coalition of past and present city workers organizing a protest against the return to work mandate outside of City Hall on Sunday.

“He wants to protect his legacy and leave on a high note for what he expects will be an allegedly successful gubernatorial run,” Cedeño added, suggesting de Blasio was trying to curry favor with deep-pocketed donors ahead of a potential run for higher office next year. The mayor has not said he plans to run for governor though he has said he plans to “keep serving” when he is term-limited out of City Hall at the end of the year.

De Blasio has framed the “return to work” mandate as part of the commitment to public service required of municipal workers, arguing that their overall performance has suffered in the past year and a half to the detriment of residents who rely on city services.

“We have not had a particularly stellar experience with remote employment,” the mayor said Friday on the Brian Lehrer Show. “From a government perspective, our folks not being in their offices, not being able to coordinate and work together on how to address issues, create solutions, it’s made a huge impact unfortunately in the wrong direction.”

Those comments angered some city workers, with some calling it a “slap in the face” and others who said the mayor’s productivity assessment was false.

City workers also complained about the last-minute nature of this announcement. Most were told just two weeks ago that they had to return to their offices full-time on September 13th, the same day that public-school students return to their classrooms.

Emails to employees across multiple agencies shared with Gothamist / WNYC, first reported by The New York Times, outlined a series of safety requirements, including masking in shared workspaces, daily health screenings, proof of vaccination or compliance with weekly COVID-19 testing.

Despite the requirements, one-third of city workers remain unvaccinated. Workers pointed to this disparity along with concerns about other office policies that ran counter to advice from public-health professionals such as no social-distancing requirements unless interacting with the public, and a lack of accommodation for caregivers with vulnerable family members, including children too young to be vaccinated and seniors.

Several workers shared copies of the latest return to office guidance provided by their agencies which show some inconsistencies particularly around how they are expected to take time off if they have a child who needs to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure.

Employees at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development are being told that “generally staff may telework during this time, if they are able to do so, after providing the required proof of a quarantine order to Human Resources.” Similar guidance was provided to employees at the Department of Transportation.

At the same time, employees at the departments of environmental protection and health are among those who will not have tele-work options after Monday; they are being told to take sick time, annual leave, or apply for other leave options like Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), which they may also be restricted based on their job status.

Late Friday, a spokesman for the mayor's office said an email was sent earlier in the afternoon from the Mayor's Restart Team clarifying the city's policy as it relates to quarantines: "The Leave Policy, as written, allows an employee to telework for any FFCRA-qualifying event, if they are able to do so. With regards to child and dependent care, this includes care of someone under a quarantine or isolation order, or care for a child whose childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19 precautions. The employee must be approved to telework by their HR manager, have provided appropriate documentation, and be able to complete their work successfully." 

Employees who spoke with Gothamist / WNYC had not yet received that additional information.

In an op-ed in the Daily News, District Council 37 President Henry Garrido offered a plea on behalf of the 80,000 workers his union represents to allow them to continue to work from home, citing the rising positivity rates and their successful job performances.

“It is obvious the decision to bring back city workers is not rooted in public health or science. This is an effort to return to normalcy faster than is recommended, and clearly a caving to the desires of New York City’s business community. That is no way to govern,” Garrido wrote.

He also pointed to other public and private companies that pushed their return to office dates back to try to combat the dangerous rise of COVID cases, including the state of New York which is not requiring office workers to return until at least mid-October.

That’s also when City Comptroller Scott Stringer plans to bring his office staff back. In a series of tweets that coincided with de Blasio’s appearance on WNYC, Stringer bashed the mayor’s “my way or the highway” approach to office reopenings. He said the delta variant remains an ongoing concern, especially with vaccination rates lagging in the city and across city agencies, and said that his staff would push back the return to work to at least October 12th.

“The Office of the Comptroller is not a mayoral agency. It is led by a separately and independently elected official and, as such, has discretion in following mayoral directives,” said spokesperson Josiel Estrella.

For several workers who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, they said being forced to return to the office on Monday may mean leaving their jobs altogether.

That’s not a decision that Brian Lee, a city planner at the Department of Transportation for six years, takes lightly. He’s currently managing the city’s e-scooter pilot in the Bronx.

“I think on Monday there is a chance I won’t be there. I’ll be taking leave with our supervisor's permission,” he said.

Taking leave is part of a statement he plans to make along with other DOT workers who have a wide range of concerns, beginning with a lack of communication and transparency about how the city arrived at this decision.

In the long term, if nothing changes, Lee said the return to office mandate may make him reconsider his job options: “It really comes down to having a voice and control over my future.”

Correction: This story originally used the term "universal masking." It has now been updated to clarify the safety requirements call for "masking in shared workspaces."