'A VERY DIFFICULT TIME': James Villecco, a Fire Department mechanic, died at 54 of the coronavirus. The president of his union said all such deaths should be considered line-of-duty and called it 'a very difficult time for us because all of our members are considered essential to keep equipment like the police cars, ambulances and fire apparatus running.'  

Union leaders who represent Police Department civilian workers that Commissioner Dermot Shea's decision to convene a conference call on March 30 with them set a good example for other Commissioners facing the challenge of maintaining operations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"He asked all of us what he and the department could do for us and our members," said Joseph Colangelo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 246, which represents the city's mechanics. "And things you would never think of came up on the call, like the Traffic Enforcement Agents who used to be able to count on the public bathrooms at a Starbucks when they are out and now, with everything closed, had nowhere to go."

Keep Up With Supplies

He continued, "We just want to make sure the department keeps up with supplies like Lysol, hand-sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and masks, and so far, the PD has been pretty good with stuff like that."

During a phone interview, Mr. Colangelo confirmed that one of his members, Jim Villecco, 54, of Staten Island had died from COVID-19 March 29. He worked as a mechanic for the FDNY's ambulance shop at its Review Ave., Long Island City location. He is survived by his wife and daughter.

At least 14 Local 246 members are out with coronavirus-related health issues. "It goes up every day," he said.

"This a very difficult time for us because all of our members are considered essential to keep equipment like the police cars, ambulances and fire apparatus running," the union leader said. "Whether you are with the Department of Sanitation, Fire Department, the NYPD, one of our mechanics or a machinist in a sewage treatment plant. Even if you are close to someone like your wife who has tested positive, you have to report for work as long as you are asymptomatic."

Call It Line-of-Duty

Mr. Colangelo said he believed that any COVID-19-linked death of a civil servant who was required to come to work should be considered line-of-duty. 

"This has to be the case for the entire essential workforce across the board if you want this city to function," he said. "But we do need to more closely scrutinize how many people we really need so we can limit the exposure as much as possible. We got to work smart and figure out how we can reduce the workforce and still keep things running."

The Local 246 president believes all agencies need to review operations daily to ensure that social distancing prevails in the workplace.

The level of COVID-19 response appears to vary greatly by agency.

"We are getting so many calls from civil servants from different agencies who are deemed essential but don't have the Personal Protective Equipment like masks they need," said Marci Rosenblum, a consultant who works for unions including Communications Workers of America Local 1180 and District Council 37 Local 983. "They are rightfully worried about their families and they are worried about going home to them at night."

Essential But No Day-Care?

According to Joe Puleo, president of Local 983, which represents blue-collar workers across several different agencies, just because one agency designates an employee essential does not mean another recognizes the designation.

"We had a situation where our Urban Park Officers who are assigned to the parks to make sure the public observes social distancing were told they were essential, but when they showed up to use the day-care option the city's providing were told their civil-service title was not on this list," he said. "It finally got straightened out on March 27."

He said that union officials also had to step in when management was not being proactive enough to protect workers' health or was unable to provide PPE like masks.

"We would like our members who are out there out the dealing with the public to have masks, but we know we don't want to take them from the front- line health-care workers," Mr. Puleo said. "But as this goes on for weeks, we need to keep in mind the safety of all of the civil servants required to go to work." he said.

Local 983 bought bullhorns to help Urban Park Officers more effectively communicate with the public from a distance while reducing their potential COVID-19 exposure.

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