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NYC'S Remote Workforce Eyes May 3 Return Date

Michael Appleton/ Office of the Mayor Flickr page
Mayor de Blasio decision to call back 80,000 city workers who have been working remotely comes as almost half of the city's workforce is vaccinated.

Doug Doyle speaks with Bob Hennelly

DOYLE: This Monday, May 3, is the day that New York City Bill de Blasio has said he wants city agencies to start to bring back tens of thousands of employees who have been working remotely since March of 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With us now is WBGO’s Bob Hennelly, who is also the City Hall correspondent for the Chief Leader that’s been covering the civil service since 1897.

Bob joins us now with this update. Thanks for joining us.

So, Bob we haven’t spoken in a while. Just how many city workers have been working remotely? Don’t they actually represent just a fraction of the city’s municipal workforce that has been required to report for duty during the entire crisis?

HENNELLY: That’s right Doug. We are talking about 80,000 city workers that have been able to work from home during the pandemic out of some 310,000 city workers. For tens of thousands of first responders, healthcare workers, and other front line workers remote work was out of the question. It’s important to mention here their commitment to serve the public came at a heavy price with close to 400 of them dying from COVID and their families being exposed to the virus.

DOYLE: The headlines on the return to work give the impression that it’s happening all at once. But your reporting suggests it’s actually being phased in, correct?

HENNELLY: That’s right. Mayor de Blasio has direct responsibility for overseeing 50 agencies who have all been tasked with developing plans for preparing for the return of their remote workforce. That includes phasing in the return to account for the wide range of challenges their individual workers are still facing. Those include their current childcare arrangements---are their children back to in-person instruction at their school or has there been a deterioration in the health of an elderly relative or spouse in their immediate household. All of that is in the mix.

DOYLE: While our COVID regional numbers in both New York and New Jersey have shown marked signs of improvement with the increasing vaccination rate still roughly half of adults are not yet vaccinated and virus variants are still an issue. Why is the Mayor pushing to return now?

HENNELLY: Mayor de Blasio still is sticking by his goal of having five million eligible residents vaccinated by June but there’s a lot of political pressure from the private sector, particularly in places like lower Manhattan where commercial real estate rents and values hinge entirely on foot traffic. The hope is that the city’s remote workforce will spark confidence—you know Doug the images of city workers out enjoying their lunch in City Hall Park during a spring workday with the sun shining and the birds chirping with tourists asking for directions.

DOYLE: You’ve been reporting in the Chief that there’s been pushback from the city unions on the Mayor’s return to work mandate. What are their concerns?

HENNELLY: Back in October, some of the city unions testified that the city had failed to have consistent occupational health standards throughout the pandemic and that city workers were unnecessarily put at risk, sometimes with fatal consequences. And while the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which oversees how the city agencies operate, did develop a comprehensive guide on how to reduce the risks of spreading COVID there was no one checking up to make sure there was any compliance. And there’s also the complication that thousands of city workers work in leased space where it is a private landlord's responsibility for maintaining the HVAC and building air filtration which, as we have learned, is a crucial part of workplace safety post-COVID.

DOYLE: As much progress as there has been, you have been reporting that even as everybody from President Biden on down to Mayor de Blasio has been urging people to get vaccinated there’s still significant resistance to getting the shot. What do we know about the status of the city’s workforce when it comes to vaccination?

HENNELLY: Several days ago, Mayor de Blasio said that slightly less than half of the city’s workforce had been vaccinated. What is curious and could become increasingly an issue is that we are seeing this hesitancy to get vaccinated prevalent with the FDNY firefighters and EMS workforce who were the folks that had the earliest access to the vaccine. Similarly, the city’s Health + Hospitals, the largest municipal health system in the nation, just half of their staff has been vaccinated.

DOYLE: So, what’s driving that reluctance and how does the city aim to encourage compliance—they can’t legally compel employees can they?

HENNELLY: It’s important to note that the vaccines have all been produced and distributed on an expedited emergency waiver basis which makes it legally difficult to make vaccination a condition of employment. Mayor de Blasio has told me during the press briefings the city has no plans to do so. That said, I am tracking moves around the country where congregant care corporations are requiring the shots for their employees and the issue of so-called vaccine passports is being hotly debated in state legislatures across the country.

The city workers, union leaders and managers I have spoken with say it’s important to remember that thousands of first responders and health care workers with the city already have had a bout with the virus, some quite severe. And while the city’s public health officials have consistently said people who have had the virus should get the vaccine, individual civil servants are being guided by the advice they get from their own physicians that’s based on their unique situation. What is interesting is that among Fire Officers and the EMS officers, folks who are the leaders on their job, we are seeing a much higher vaccination rate, which city managers hope will help turn the tide.

DOYLE: Thanks Bob for joining us on the WBGO Journal.