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Which NYC Frontline Workers Will Get the Next Shot at the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Doctor Michelle Chester of Northwell Health in Queens administers the first coronavirus vaccine in New York, Dec. 14, 2020.
Doctor Michelle Chester of Northwell Health in Queens administers the first coronavirus vaccine in New York, Dec. 14, 2020.
Scott Heins for the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

A month into the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the de Blasio and Cuomo administrations have yet to fully spell out which “frontline essential workers” are next in line after health care staff and nursing homes get the shots.

That’s increased anxiety for many New Yorkers hailed as heroes of the pandemic — from doormen and for-hire vehicle drivers to food delivery people and pharmacy clerks — who’ve risked their lives while others work from home.

“In order for society to continue to function, these essential workers must be kept safe,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the 45,000-member Retail, Wholesale & Department Store union that represents, among others, workers at some grocery and pharmacy chains.

The first vaccines arrived in New York Dec. 14, but the rollout has been slowed by bureaucratic and other obstacles. Frontline health care workers were first up, but some — about 30% — have resisted taking the vaccine, state health officials say.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that as of Thursday afternoon 433,000 individuals had received the vaccine statewide.

All of the recipients so far are “Category 1A”, which to date includes only health care workers and nursing home staff and residents. The state estimates that amounts to 2.1 million people across the state.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio demanded that Cuomo expand the list of those eligible in Category 1A to include some cops, firefighters and EMTs.

The governor is insisting that — at least for now — vaccines go only to health care workers and nursing homes.

Meanwhile, neither de Blasio nor Cuomo have yet to reveal the full list of all who will be eligible for the next round, Category 1B, or even when it will begin. The state expects 6.3 million people will fall into this category.

Lack of Transparency

The city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, which is coordinating the vaccine rollout in the five boroughs, describes this group as “Frontline essential workers who cannot physically distance and have frequent in-person contact with others.”

The city has proposed including anyone 75 years or older, firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians, teachers and some unspecified school staff, corrections officers and inmates, and workers and residents in homeless shelters.

But de Blasio administration officials have not responded to repeated requests by THE CITY to release the entire list of those potentially covered by the broad “frontline essential worker” category.

Paramedics load a patient into an ambulance in the East Village, Dec. 4, 2020.
Paramedics load a patient into an ambulance in the East Village, Dec. 4, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

In any case, the state, which has the final say on who goes first, has been similarly lacking in transparency.

Cuomo has said police, firefighters, education, public safety and public transit workers will be next in line, but state Department of Health officials declined to go beyond that.

On Thursday, Patrick Foye, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, emailed workers to say the state had designated “essential transportation workers, which includes our entire MTA family,” for inclusion in Category 1B for the next round of vaccinations.

He estimated the rollout would begin by month’s end, starting with what he described as “our heroic frontline workforce,” which has suffered more than 130 coronavirus-related deaths.

But other essential workers have yet to get the good word.

In interviews with THE CITY, those representing various frontline essential workers — including grocery employees, food delivery workers, pharmacy clerks, doormen, NYCHA laborers, school security, hotel and sanitation workers — say they have yet to hear from the city or state about who’s next in line.

Appelbaum said his union has been “urging our local government in New York to prioritize essential workers — including our members who work in essential supermarkets, pharmacies and other public-facing roles for vaccinations.” He said they have yet to get a definitive response from the city or state.

Delivering Hope

Some food delivery workers would also like to be among those next in line.

“It’d be awesome if delivery workers were included in the next round of vaccines,” said Sergio Ajche, a Bensonhurst-based food delivery worker who is a member of Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants who are demanding better treatment from the app-based services they work for.

Ajche noted: “It’s essential for us delivery workers to get the vaccine, because we’re in contact with countless people, from the restaurants, the doormen, to, of course, the clients.”

He conceded, though, that not all fellow deliveristas share his view.

Some are wary of the vaccine due to reports of a handful of recipients experiencing side effects, and would like to see “more people take it” first, Ajche said. Others are reluctant to interact with the government, including health officials, he added.

The city and state health departments have repeatedly noted that they do not share patient information with federal immigration authorities, and that the vaccines are safe.

Hundreds of delivery workers packed City Hall Park to call for job protections during the pandemic, Oct. 15, 2020.
Hundreds of delivery workers packed City Hall Park to call for job protections during the pandemic, Oct. 15, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Leaders of Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents doormen, property maintenance workers and building cleaners, have demanded that their members be put into Category 1B.

“We have not at this time heard from the city or state or industry where various categories of our members are ‘on the line,’” union officials wrote in an emailed response to THE CITY’s inquiry. “Our members should be in 1B and we want to ensure that they have access to the vaccine as soon as possible.”

The same holds true for for-hire vehicle drivers, according to Moira Muntz, a spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 90,000 app-based drivers in the city.

“For-hire vehicle drivers are vital for the function of New York’s essential work, travel and New York business, so drivers should be vaccinated as soon as possible,” Muntz told THE CITY. “Even now amid the pandemic, for-hire vehicle drivers transport half a million people each day in New York, including health care workers and other essential travel. Drivers need access to vaccination as soon as possible and we stand ready to help with the effort.”

‘Get This Turned Around’

As for sanitation workers and other city employees not yet listed as eligible under Category 1B, Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association and chair of the Municipal Labor Coalition, told THE CITY the labor groups have been left in the dark.

There is no timeline for when sanitation workers will begin to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Nespoli said, noting that over the last nine months, hundreds of his members have gotten sick and four have died due to complications from the virus.

A driver wears a mask behind a plastic shield on an MTA bus in Brooklyn, Oct. 1, 2020.
A driver wears a mask behind a plastic shield on an MTA bus in Brooklyn, Oct. 1, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The essential workers have gone through hell with this virus,” he said. “Now is the time to get this turned around and thank God the vaccine is here.”

The same information void confronts frontline NYCHA workers, school safety officers and school kitchen staff represented by Teamsters Local 237.

“I’ve not been told Phase One, Phase Two, 1B, 1C,” said Greg Floyd, Local 237’s president, recalling his frustrations obtaining adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for his members at the beginning of the pandemic in the spring.

“It’s ending as it began: No information,” he said. “I’m not surprised. I’m past angry. It’s to be expected. I bought my own PPE (last spring), but I can’t buy my own vaccinations.”

On Friday the city unions are scheduled to get a telephonic briefing from City Hall and the city Health Department on the status of Category 1B. That briefing, however, will include only unions representing city workers — none for doormen, for-hire vehicle drivers, pharmacy, grocery workers or others.

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