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Elected officials frequently cite the heroic roles of health-care workers and first-responders in battling coronavirus. But unions for other civil-service workers say their members, just like those employees, stay on the job at a risk to themselves and their families.

And while this "must-show" workforce operates well below the public consciousness, it enables the other services most in demand in a crisis.

'Who Repairs Ambulances?'

Joseph Colangelo, who as president of Service Employees International Union Local 246 represents the city's auto mechanics, said that the pandemic highlights the short-sighted city decision not to add additional mechanics even as it increased the size of its vehicle fleet.

"Going into this we were so short-staffed that if we truly have a crisis on our hands, who is going to repair the ambulances to transport these people?" he asked.

Joe Puleo, the president of Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983 of District Council 37, which represents 3,600 blue-collar workers in the Parks, Police and Transportation departments, said in a phone interview, "Most of our people work out of doors to serve the public. We have the Urban Park Rangers who interact out in the parks and keep the public safe. We have the NYPD Traffic Agents who tow vehicles that obstruct traffic, and you can't enforce the traffic laws working from home."

He continued, "The greatest concern is how coronavirus is spreading and keeping our members safe. Do they have enough gloves? Do they have enough masks? Are they going to get the right medical attention if need be? This is constantly on my mind."

An Alarming Explanation

He offered this example: "We had a situation with one of our NYPD tow-truck operators who towed away a car parked illegally and then the owner of the car called in and said they had not picked up the car because they were in self-quarantine with coronavirus." 

The Local 983 member had to get into the vehicle to disengage the brakes so as to not damage the vehicle when he towed it away.

"So, here we had a member just doing their job running into a potential coronavirus exposure," the Local 983 president said. The union was still waiting to find out his health status.

Mr. Puleo said the city agencies that employ his members have been flexible in providing paid sick time.

"They are working with members if they say they don't feel well or need some flexibility for child-care with the schools closed, but supplies like the masks and other personal protection materials needed to do our jobs is still an issue," he said.

But another labor leader was far more critical of the de Blasio administration's handling of the crisis.

Lacking Protection 

In a blistering letter to the Mayor, Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd blasted him for leaving thousands of city workers "without protective equipment including masks, gloves and hand sanitizers and appropriate training as they to do their jobs dealing with some of the city's most vulnerable populations."

Mr. Floyd represents 23,000 workers in agencies including the Department of Education, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Homeless Service and the Housing Authority.

"Our members serve and protect the public. Among the places they work are public schools and colleges, public housing, homeless shelters, public hospitals and the Administration for Children's Services," Mr. Floyd wrote. "How can they be expected, in good conscience, to protect the public, when they are not protected themselves? They are parents, sons and daughters too, who should not fear that they place themselves and their families in harm's way by going to work."

He continued, "They should be commended for their efforts, not penalized, jeopardized and left out of the City's plans to combat this deadly virus."

Mr. Floyd pointed to masks issued to School Safety Agents which he said were "woefully inadequate and irresponsibly late in being distributed."

"Other members of 237, also dealing in areas of large, vulnerable populations, received nothing," he said. "It's inhuman and hypocritical to ask workers to do a job without any thought to their well-being. I say to the Mayor, you should not only thank these workers, but protect them too."

The Mayor's Press Office did not reply to an email request for comment.


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