A city Board of Elections employee and shop steward for Communications Workers of America Local 1183, which represents workers for that agency, died Feb. 6 from the coronavirus, according to union President Donna G. Ellaby.
Timothy James was a Technician in the BOE's warehouse on Metropolitan Ave. in Queens and had previously expressed concerns about the conditions of his workplace.
According to the union, five members have died from COVID and another 100 contracted it. The lack of ventilation and the inability to socially distance at Mr. James's workplace had been raised by Local 1183 before his death.
The BOE shares that building with municipal agencies including the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which is a major distributor of personal protective equipment for city workers.
Mr. James attended Borough of Manhattan Community College and Brooklyn College, and spent three years with the State Legislature handling constituent services, with a focus on education and counseling.
Daneek Miller, Chairman of the City Council's Civil Service and Labor Committee, was a long-time friend of his and said Mr. James had "always been focused on the young people in the community and their advancement through the arts and education."
He said he had raised the issue of BOE workplace conditions whenever he thought it could make a difference.
"When I talked to Congressman Gregory Meeks and State Senator Leroy Comrie about his passing, they both recalled the last conversation they had with him about his concerns about the working conditions at that facility," Mr. Miller said.
Board to Offer Oversight
His death came nine days after the passage of a bill authored by Mr. Miller to create an oversight board to monitor and review the workplace practices of both private- and public-sector employers to reduce the spread of the virus.
Ms. Ellaby had testified before Mr. Miller's committee about the risks her members were running as essential workers in what she called substandard facilities.
"It is time to transform our workplaces into healthy, safe, modernized environments that enable municipal workers to carry out the mission of their agencies without being afraid to come to work," she said then.
The union president said that "last summer we reached out to the Mayor's Office and were denied sufficient PPE. Access to enrichment programs for the children of our workers was also initially denied."
Ms. Ellaby noted that the "vast majority" of tasks her members perform "cannot be accomplished with social distancing," and during elections, "we become front-line workers who deserve to be prioritized for the COVID vaccine."
Local 1183's rank and file includes a high percentage of older workers of color with "chronic health challenges that put them in high-risk categories," Ms. Ellaby said.
In an interview the day after Mr. James's death, Mr. Miller said he was talking with Council Speaker Corey Johnson about expediting the establishment of the oversight panel, which Mayor de Blasio has endorsed.
Last November, the Civil Service and Labor Committee heard from several unions that while DCAS had promulgated best practices to keep workers safe during the pandemic, some agencies failed to comply because there was no oversight or enforcement mechanism.
Mr. Miller said that his investigation of the circumstances surrounding the most recent COVID outbreak at the BOE's Queens warehouse indicated that DCAS launched a timely response but there was too wide a variance between how agencies in the warehouse tested employees, permitting the virus to spread.
"That building needs to be managed holistically where every employee, regardless of their agency, is simultaneously and uniformly advised and the responses like contract tracing are integrated in real time," he said.
A DCAS spokesman pointed out that it neither owns nor operates the warehouse, and that the agencies that are its co-tenants, the BOE and the city Division of Records, are responsible for setting their own virus protocols.
Wants Election Head Gone
Mr. Miller is calling for the resignation of BOE Executive Director Michael Ryan.
In a detailed response, agency spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez wrote it "has done everything we can to keep our employees safe."
She said the agency's pandemic protocols included screening for temperatures, providing notice facility-wide when positive cases surfaced, allowing three hours of time to get tested, and compensating employees who had to quarantine.
The BOE said it also supplies its employees as much PPE as requested, utilizes high-touch point cleaning and after-hours sanitizing, and has implemented split shifts for employees. It would not comment on the number of employees it has lost to the virus.
Prior to Mr. James's death, Kyle Simmons, president of District Council 37's Local 924, which represents DCAS laborers, complained about the way DCAS middle managers at the Queens warehouse were handling an outbreak.
'Never Informed Us'
"Nobody from DCAS told us about it," Mr. Simmons said during a phone interview. "I heard about it from my members, and we should really be informed, because it's a real workplace hazard that has the potential to not only kill you but a member of your family."
He said a DCAS supervisor went home sick on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and tested positive for COVID. "They contacted people [the workers] that evening, saying the supervisor tested positive, and they tested the workers the next day," he said.
Mr. Simmons said that his members who tested negative were ordered to return to work Monday Jan. 25 despite the fact that it can be a matter of days before an exposure produces infection, "which is why we want our people to quarantine for at least 10 days and then get retested."
"There's a complete disconnect between the top-level managers and the mid- and lower-level managers in terms of how we are addressing the COVID protocols and there's no accountability for this gap that puts our members at risk," he said.
The DCAS spokesman, Nick Benson, replied, "When DCAS was informed that one of its employees tested positive, DCAS contact NYC Test & Trace to lead contact tracing, commenced weekly on-site COVID-19 testing for its employees, and employees who had close contact with the COVID-positive staff member were advised to follow all applicable New York State guidelines."
Mr. Simmons said that he felt it was critical to keep his members infection-free because they are dispatched throughout the city to distribute the PPE.
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