alana domford crossing guard

THEY ALSO SERVE, AND GET SICK: School Crossing Guard Alana Domford, who called 911 after a man collapsed on the street near her post, is among the city employees who was at risk of being infected with the coronavirus because of her job but received a limited number of paid sick days, in contrast to uniformed workers who are entitled to unlimited sick leave.

The use of unlimited sick time by uniformed employees spiked dramatically at the peak of the city's first coronavirus wave of infection in April 2020, according to a comprehensive analysis by the city's Independent Budget Office released last month.

The city's civilian workforce, which does not enjoy that benefit, also saw a significant uptick in sick leave, the IBO found, but it didn't approach the average time off taken by the smaller uniformed contingent. 

Hurt City Services

"The need for the city to continue to provide essential services often conflicted with the need to ensure the health and well-being of the municipal workforce," according to the report.

Close to 400 municipal workers have died from the virus, in addition to the close to 160 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers who perished. As many as 11,000 members of the NYPD were sidelined by the virus, with 69 of them dying.

"In April, at the peak of contagion in the city, uniformed employees used 1.8 million hours of unlimited sick leave and civilian staff 1.9 million hours of sick or excused leave, nearly triple the amount used in April 2019," the IBO reported.

"During the height of the pandemic, uniformed employees in public-safety unions were far more likely to use sick leave than civilian staff," according to the report. "Police officers used five times more sick leave in April 2020 than they did in April 2019. But so did traffic enforcement officers, who do not get unlimited sick leave. Both groups of workers have substantial contact with the public."

A Wide Disparity

The IBO analysis noted, "From March through May 2020, nearly 40 percent of uniformed employees and 15 percent of civilian staff took some sick leave. Overall, 25 percent of city employees took some amount of sick leave during the period."

Throughout the pandemic, roughly 25 percent of the city's 310,000 municipal employees were able to work remotely, and they "averaged about the same or less sick leave in April 2020 than April 2019," according to the IBO.

In the spring of 2020, the city spent $152 million to cover the cost of handling on overtime the duties of city workers who were sidelined with the virus or forced to quarantine due to possible exposure. The American Rescue Plan Act will reimburse the city for about $100 million of that cost, the IBO stated.

Those findings were cited by unions whose members don't enjoy unlimited sick time but were key players in the city's pandemic response as evidence of discriminatory and disparate treatment.

Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Gloria Middleton, who represents several thousand Administrative Managers and Project Managers in mayoral agencies and NYC Health+Hospitals, during a June 1 phone interview said many of her members employed in city hospitals blew through their allotted sick days as a consequence of workplace exposure, forcing them to use vacation days if they got sick again or had complications from their infections.

'Shows the Inequities'

"This just goes to show the existing inequities in the city workforce," she said. "Certainly, we had people at H+H who contracted COVID and survived but had to be out because they contracted the virus...It's unfair. They had to use their own sick time."

Vincent Variale, president of Local 3621 of District Council 37, which represents Emergency Medical Service officers, said their annual 12 days of sick leave were expanded by offering "non-chargeable time or excused leave time" for virus-related issues.

"The city and the [Fire Department] both realized people were going to keep blowing through the sick time and risked a lot of them being knocked off payroll, so they were concerned," he said during a phone interview. He said the de Blasio administration also sick time EMS members used due to the virus.

"But this really supports why we are making this unlimited sick time a demand during our contract talks—it was demonstrated in the time of a real pandemic emergency," Mr. Variale said. "EMS has to be given the same unlimited sick benefits as the other uniformed services got because we were the tip of the spear of the COVID response. There was a point where we were the only service responding to these calls."

'A Disgrace'

"My men and women are at a disadvantage regarding the city's sick-leave policy," texted Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37 Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians. "We deal with sick and injured people all day, every day of the year. We are exposed to communicable diseases that are deadly, as we've seen this past year. Our men and women get 12 sick days a year. It's a disgrace to have such a unique agency receive such low time off to recover."

He added, "Lastly but not least, post-traumatic stress disorder among EMS workers is known to be significantly higher than for other first-responders, yet we don't get any time off for mental health."

He noted that last year two EMS workers committed suicide.

From March to May of 2020, the city had 200,000 diagnosed COVID cases with 52,000 virus patients hospitalized, and recorded 18,000 virus deaths, according to a medical research paper published by ERJ Open Research to which FDNY Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Prezant contributed.

The FDNY reported 13 coronavirus-related deaths, and the ERJ study, funded by the department, concluded its employees were 15 times more likely to be infected with COVID than the general public.

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