The City Council has proposed creating a task force to oversee the safe return of municipal workers who transitioned to working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, but some of them still have concerns.
As the city prepared to enter the second phase of reopening June 22, agencies were working to establish guidelines based on expertise from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city Department of Health to determine when and how city employees could return to their work spaces, de Blasio administration officials testified at a virtual June 16 City Council hearing. Although many of the city’s 325,000 employees, such as Emergency Medical Technicians, Nurses and Police Officers, are essential workers, about two-thirds of the municipal workforce has been able to work from home.
Agencies to Set Protocols
The Council bill would require city agencies to develop and publish their own policies and protocols, which would be reviewed by the task force.
"Many New Yorkers are excited yet apprehensive about reopening, and rightly so," said Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, who sponsored the legislation.
Department of Citywide Administrative Services Commissioner Lisette Camillo stated that the agency was creating guidance to ensure that buildings, office spaces and workers were prepared to reopen. Each city agency was also working to create a checklist of requirements that workplaces must complete so that no offices re-open before they’re ready.
Ms. Camillo supported of the Council’s legislation, but raised concerns about a proposal to appoint an officer to oversee the re-opening of agencies.
“Every agency has different operations, different needs, a different size—it can’t be a cookie-cutter approach,” she said.
No Place Like Home?
City workers who spoke at the hearing backed the bill, but expressed concerns about returning to their work spaces. Some called on the de Blasio administration to allow people working from home to continue to do so.
Joshua Barnett, an Architect who works for the Housing Authority, worried that a second wave of coronavirus cases could lie ahead.
“What concerns myself and many of my colleagues is that we be returned prematurely,” he said. “We’ve had issues with sanitation at our workplace even before the pandemic.”
They also pointed out that some city agencies, including the Housing Authority, took weeks to supply hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment to front-line workers, calling that a troubling sign.
When the issue was raised as to where they could turn if COVID-related safety requirements were not being followed, Ms. Camilo stated that the city hadn’t established any sort of enforcement body. The proposed legislation also does not include any provisions related to enforcement.
'No One Wants to Gamble'
“I don’t think anyone will want to take a gamble on the health and safety of their workforce,” she said.
But employees already know because of the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks what it’s like to be told it's safe to go back to work but find out later that it wasn’t—and continue to face the consequences of that decision. A week after the attack, U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Christine Todd Whitman declared that the air quality in lower Manhattan was safe—and in 2016 apologized for doing so.
“Many of the employees who were working for [the Department of Housing Preservation and Development] on 9/11 have found themselves with health conditions caused by exposure to toxins that were in the air,” said Elizabeth Eastman, a Project Manager at the agency. “These workers got sick simply by coming into lower Manhattan. They came to work because they were told the environment was safe.”
She also questioned whether employees must take COVID tests before returning to work. Ms. Camillo said screenings would be required.
“The city must avoid making the same mistakes they did after 9/11,” Ms. Eastman concluded.
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