GROWING PAINS: Even as Mayor Adams, visiting a Bronx elementary school with Chancellor David Banks, was chiding Wall Street executives for allowing their employees to continue working from home because of its impact on the city's economy, uniformed-union leaders were calling on him to recognize the risks their members were taking by giving them hazard pay.

A surge in Omicron infections that's sidelined thousands of uniformed employees in recent weeks has prompted some of their union leaders to call for hazard pay at a time when agencies are increasingly relying on overtime to maintain adequate staffing.

Cases statewide topped 74,000 Jan. 3—a record number although those who were ill generally were in less-dire condition than those afflicted early in the pandemic. That day there were also more than 100 deaths from the coronavirus—the first time in several months that mark was exceeded, although it was well short of the several hundred who died daily from the original strain of the disease in April 2020. Close to 400 city workers died of the virus during its initial wave.

Absences 20% and Higher

Uniformed agencies including the Police, Fire and Sanitation departments and the unions representing their employees reported absence rates of at least 20 percent, with 30 percent of Emergency Medical Service workers out sick, according to an FDNY spokesman.

Vincent Variale, who as president of Local 3621 of District Council 37 represents EMS officers, was among those saying employees deserved hazard pay for the health risks they were taking, "especially since the private-sector EMTs and health-care workers" were receiving it. "Also, EMS members should be paid double time to encourage them to come into work on their days off. We desperately need the staffing."

The Fire Department reported an elevated call volume averaging more than 4,000 daily. At the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Emergency Medical Technicians and officers were receiving as many as 7,000 calls daily. Since Christmas, it has deployed 10 ambulances from out of state funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with another 50 soon to be activated.

Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli also called for hazard pay, saying, "The workforce is being crippled with this thing right now—it really is. A lot of them have been vaccinated yet [they're] still turning around and getting sick."

'It's Not Killing Them'

The one saving grace, he added was that "this latest variant, it's not like the other one that was killing people; it's just laying them up for a while."

But the increased number of hospitalizations of children meant "there's still a risk for your family," said Mr. Nespoli, who is also chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee.

Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James McCarthy, noting the heavy use of overtime to maintain adequate fire-company staffing, said that while some members welcomed the extra money at this time of year, there were risks in working to excess.

"It's too difficult and dangerous to work these emergencies tired and fatigued," he said in a Jan. 4 phone interview. "There's a lot of pressure, and heart attacks remain one of our biggest concerns. Hypertension is an issue for the fire service nationwide: it's on of the biggest killers, along with cancer."

A Tragic Reminder

Nine days earlier, one of Mr. McCarthy's members, Lieut. Joe Maiello, died of a heart attack he suffered in his Staten Island firehouse. The 53-year-old had joined the department in 1999 and was among those who survived the World Trade Center rescue efforts on 9/11.

While some civilian-union leaders have been calling for the city to reinstate remote-work options for members who don't need to be in their offices to do their jobs, Mayor Adams began his tenure seeming no more inclined to oblige them than his predecessor did in the closing weeks of his term.

Mr. Adams chided Wall Street firms that were permitting their employees to continue working from home, saying the cost to local businesses that depend on the patronage of those going into their offices had already been too great.

"It's time to open up and feed our ecosystem, our financial ecosystems," he said. "That's what I am telling my employees."

Mandatory Booster Shots?

He said during several television interviews that he was considering whether to compel city employees—who are already under a mandate to get vaccinated against the virus—to receive a booster shot as well, finally saying he would hold off on a decision until April.

Mr. Nespoli said city workers should be given easier access to testing for the virus. Fire Capt. Dellon Morgan, the president of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, said an additional frustration was considerable delays in receiving test results.

“At the height of the pandemic we were put on a pedestal,” he said. “Then they wanted us to get vaccinated; we got it. Now all we are asking for is a timely turnaround for that test.”

Both union and FDNY officials said that extended waits for those results had added to the personnel crunch by putting off the return of employees who had COVID symptoms.

“We have testing protocols in place, but we are seeing the same delays in getting back the results that’s been experienced by other departments nationwide,” Deputy Fire Commissioner for Public Information Frank Dwyer said.


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