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The head of the largest union representing city workers called on the city to negotiate a telework policy after the Adams administration doubled down on the importance of municipal employees working in-person — a policy that one former city worker believed was sparking a slew of exits from city service.
Frank Carone, chief of staff to Mayor Eric Adams, in an email reminded public workers of the city’s mandate that employees must be working from the office on a full-time basis. While the vast majority of city workers continued to work in-person throughout the pandemic, about 80,000 were able to work remotely until they were ordered to return to the office last fall.
Must lead by example
“For the city to continue its comeback, we need employees from every sector to return to their offices. The benefits of this return for the city are immeasurable and we, as city employees, must continue to lead by example," Carone wrote.
He also emphasized that hybrid work schedules are not permitted unless employees have received an accommodation.
"While hybrid schedules have become more common in the private sector, the Mayor firmly believes that the city needs its workers to report to work every day in person," he stated.
The Mayor this week said that city workers “should be leading the charge” of New York City’s return to normalcy. Although Adams said there was a chance the city might offer slight flexibility — such as the option to work from home one day a week — he dismissed the idea of a full-time remote option.
“I’m trying to fill up office buildings and I’m telling J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, I’m telling all of them, 'Listen, I need your people back into office so we can build the ecosystem,' ” he said during a June 1 press conference. “How does that look that city employees are home while I’m telling everyone else it’s time to get back to work?”
Garrido cites safety concerns
District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, who represents 150,000 municipal employees, has repeatedly called for more flexible work options for city workers.
“I understand the Mayor’s ask, but the fact is that 80,000 city workers worked remotely efficiently during the pandemic,” he said during a recent phone interview. “We believe the city should meet with us to negotiate a telework policy. There’s a new reality now.”
Garrido noted that offering hybrid work options would benefit both workers and the city by allowing the city to save on real estate costs.
He also cited safety concerns for public employees amid an increase in coronavirus cases once again. In older buildings where municipal employees work — such as 1 Centre St. in Lower Manhattan — there have been concerns about air quality and ventilation.
Jeremiah Cedeño, co-founder of advocate group City Workers For Justice, believed the lack of remote-work options was the reason many municipal employees were opting to leave public service.
Cedeño, who had worked for the city for the past four years — most recently at the Human Resources Administration — left his city job for a nonprofit position that offers full-time remote work and a better salary.
He said that he received calls from several frustrated city employees after they saw the email from City Hall, which Cedeño described as “tone-deaf.”
“This is the confirmation they needed that it’s time to go,” he said during a phone interview. “A lot of people are making exits. They’re hearing they can make a lot of money doing meaningful work in other sectors.”
Staffing shortages plaguing city
As of last month, the city’s Independent Budget Office reported that the number of full-time city employees had fallen to 283,000 because of attrition, compared to 300,000 workers before the pandemic.
Even before Covid, the city was already facing the dilemma of replacing an aging workforce: about one-third of municipal workers will be eligible to retire over the next few years.
Several agencies have seen a slew of departures, including the Law Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The New York Housing Conference, a non-profit organization that advocates for affordable housing, recently found that HPD currently has 2,224 staffers, about 400 fewer than its budgeted headcount. Many senior employees that left over the past year have not been replaced, which has slowed down affordable housing projects, the Commercial Observer reported.
“The HPD staffing shortages are affecting services — this is going to impact housing. How can you address the homeless issue?” Cedeño asked. “Hopefully the mayor will realize that [not having a remote option] will hurt the city.”
Garrido acknowledged the recent exodus from city government, but added that he wasn’t sure if rigid in-person requirements were the primary reason.
“It’s hard to tell if it’s because of the lack of telework, because of Covid, or because of crime,” the union leader said.
Cedeño believed that the pandemic has taught workers everywhere to seek a better quality of life. “This is not an issue of being lazy and not wanting to come back to the office. All workers want is a better work-life balance,” he said.
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