For Jeremiah Cedeño, working in city government had always felt like a higher calling, something the 34-year-old Bronx native attributes to having been raised in the church.
Cedeño viewed himself as a potential lifer in city government. He had worked for three different municipal agencies over the last four years, most recently the Human Resource Administration, which oversees public assistance. But his feelings about his employer dramatically soured over the last year, and he quit several weeks ago.
The decision came surprisingly easily. A nonprofit called Vibrant, which works on mental health issues, recruited him at a higher salary and with the permanent option to work from home — a policy he and other city workers have spent months unsuccessfully fighting for since the pandemic upended the workplace. Similar to his work with the city, his new job will be mission-oriented and centered on community outreach.
“I feel like this generation is realizing that you don't have to work in city government to make an impact,” he said.
Angered by the lack of workplace flexibility and facing a strong job market, city workers appear to be exiting en masse. An analysis by the Independent Budget Office (IBO), a nonpartisan public agency, found that as of early May the total number of full-time city workers was 282,000, a 6% drop from pre-pandemic days when head counts rose above 300,000.
The exodus, which comes as hiring has slowed, is raising questions about a flight of talent at a critical moment in New York City’s recovery. Interviews with 10 current and recently departed employees point to plummeting morale and the lack of a remote work option as the main reason for the widespread exits. With the exception of Cedeño, all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or damaging their relationship with city officials.
According to city workers, some staff losses have involved individuals with specialized skills or advanced degrees — such as public health researchers, lawyers, architects, engineers — suggesting the risk of a brain drain in the city workforce.
Facing competition from the more lucrative private sector, the city Law Department, for instance, saw an April headcount of around 1,400, a stunning decrease of nearly 15% compared to the same time last year.
The city health department saw its staffing shrink by 6% in April compared to last year, from 5,400 to roughly 5,000 full-time employees, according to the IBO’s analysis.
An epidemiologist who quit after working nearly 10 years said, “We had so many great people. But unfortunately, that pot is dwindling.”
Asked about the exodus of city public health workers, Dr. Jay Varma, the former top health adviser under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, noted that the past two years have been “an incredibly challenging time for public health agencies.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that there would be a lot of people questioning whether they should be working in public health,” Varma said.
This isn't just normal attrition ... The city’s struggling to keep up with the rate of attrition with corresponding new hires.
Not your ‘normal attrition’
Although turnover is typical in city government, Robert Callahan, an IBO budget analyst who studies municipal employment trends, called the latest declines “pretty abnormal.”
“This isn't just normal attrition,” he said. “The city’s struggling to keep up with the rate of attrition with corresponding new hires.”
Over the last 10 years, full-time headcount grew at an average annual rate of .7%, according to Callahan. During the pandemic, the workforce shrank by an average of 1.9%.
Although Adams threatened to downsize city government, his last budget proposal increases municipal headcount by 3,000.
The resignations and reports of plummeting morale pose yet another challenge for Mayor Eric Adams — the self-proclaimed “get stuff done” leader — as he seeks to motivate the country’s largest municipal workforce to perform under a new administration.
All of the city workers who spoke to Gothamist were in their 30s or early 40s. Some, like Cedeño, were climbing the rungs through contracted or non-civil service positions. Others held so-called “city line” jobs, permanent or seasonal positions eligible for a greater range of benefits. Many of the departed workers said they saw themselves as being on upward trajectories toward becoming managers or directors.
John Mollenkopf, the director of the Graduate Center for Urban Research at CUNY who worked in the city Department of Planning in the 1980s, said attracting and retaining talent into municipal work has always been a challenge for the city.
“Because it's not as prestigious, it doesn't pay as much,” he said. “You have to go into it because you really are devoted to the public interest at some level, and not everybody has that inclination."
"And then if the work situation is dispiriting and you don't think things are going to improve," he added, "people will leave.”
Management vs. labor
The outcry from city workers began last fall when de Blasio ended remote work for roughly 80,000 municipal office workers. The vast majority of the city’s workforce, including first responders and sanitation workers, were already working in-person as they were dubbed essential workers. At the time, de Blasio said that the move would “send a powerful message about this city moving forward.”
But the decision to nix remote work enraged many city workers, who argued that they had proven during the pandemic that they could perform the same functions at home. The chorus of critics included working mothers who said the newfound flexibility gave them much-needed work-life balance.
It also prompted the group called City Workers For Justice, which Cedeño co-founded, to begin organizing for remote work. They hosted Zoom meetings, staged protests and solicited support from elected officials such as Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate.
Last year, state Sen. Leroy Comrie and Assemblymember Nily Rozic introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would permit city employees to perform all or a portion of their work from home.
Members of City Workers for Justice said they initially held out hope that Adams would reverse the city’s policy after he indicated during the mayoral campaign that he was open to a discussion. But shortly after taking office, he became a champion for in-person work, maintaining that a return to the office is crucial to productivity and the survival of small businesses in office districts.
“We have to have human interaction,” Adams said in February.
Hybrid as the new reality
For city workers — some of whom say they show up to the office only to log on to Zoom meetings — that kind of reasoning runs up against changing workplace realities. Private sector employers, who the mayor had implored to summon their workers back to the office, are increasingly scrapping the model of being in the office five days a week.
A recent survey by the Partnership for New York City, a group that promotes business interests, showed that nearly 80% of 160 major Manhattan-based employers anticipate moving toward hybrid work.
Reached for comment, the mayor’s office defended Adams’ stance.
“In the early months of his administration, Mayor Adams has built a stellar team that is laser-focused on Getting Stuff Done for New Yorkers,” said Jonah Allon, the deputy press secretary, in a statement. “Returning to in-person work has been shown to improve employee productivity, allow for a greater cross-pollination of ideas, and boost mental health — and the city is leading by example, while encouraging private sector employers to bring their workers back to the office as well.”
The administration, he added, will "continue to focus on attracting and recruiting top-tier talent to work for the greatest city in the world."
Still, the demand for flexible work policies is unlikely to go away. The issue may well surface during the mayor’s upcoming negotiations with the city’s unions. Henry Garrido, who heads District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union, has said a teleworking policy for city workers is “long overdue.”
The ‘boldest idea’
From the perspective of city workers, when it comes to remote work, the genie is out of the bottle.
One former city Department of Transportation employee described the pandemic as having “opened up a conversation among young people” who were now questioning the logic of a traditional 9-to-5 workplace.
Those sentiments are backed by an engagement initiative administered by the Adams administration last month that asked city workers to submit their “boldest idea." Of the more than 450 entries, remote work was found to be the “most endorsed” idea.
The administration will continue to focus on attracting and recruiting top-tier talent to work for the greatest city in the world.
As he prepared to leave his old job last week, Cedeño said the high point was being part of the team that worked on the city’s 2020 census outreach.
In spite of the pandemic, New York City finished with a 62% self-response rate that outperformed expectations and competing tallies by other major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. On the line had been billions of dollars in federal aid over the next decade for city schools, hospitals and public infrastructure.
Last fall, as de Blasio and other city officials hailed the accomplishment, Cedeño could not help but notice that they failed to highlight one important fact — most of their work had been performed at home.