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MTA’s ‘Return to Work’ Guide Outlines Strategy for Bringing Offices Back to Life

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Signs instruct one person at a time to use bathroom sinks at MTA offices.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

A conference room at MTA headquarters that once had 10 chairs around a table now has four.

Employees wearing facial coverings must check restrooms before entering to see if “appropriate social distancing” is possible.

And thermal cameras in the lobby of 2 Broadway in Lower Manhattan are supposed to detect anyone with a high temperature, who could then be screened manually. A second high-temperature reading prevents them from entering the building.

These are among the pandemic-driven safety measures greeting some MTA workers who began trickling back this week into the transit agency’s office buildings after working from home since March.

“Hopefully, it’s the new normal and people don’t get COVID fatigue,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, which is based at 2 Broadway. 

Thermal cameras in MTA offices screen workers for fevers.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

THE CITY obtained a copy of the agency’s “Return to Work Employee Guide,” which spells out the new protocols for its 10,000 office workers at buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Rule No. 1: No more than 30% of employees are supposed to report to work at the same time.

To make that possible, the MTA is sticking to guidelines that it’s been encouraging among other large employers. 

Those include staggering work arrival and departure times to limit crowding on subways and buses now carrying more than 2 million riders daily. MTA employees are split into “A” and “B” groups so they can ensure “minimum safe distance” between desks that are all equipped with lemon-scented disinfectant spray.

Individual departments differ, but an example given in the guide has A-group employees in “Week 1” working Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with B-groupers coming in Tuesday and Thursday. That would flip for “Week 2” and alternate thereafter.

“You’ve got to practice what you preach,” said Patrick Warren, the MTA’s chief safety officer.

‘A Model for Other Offices’

The 26-page guide outlines a series of precautions aimed at preventing more COVID-19 cases at the state agency, which has lost more than 130 employees to the virus, most of them subway and bus workers. 

Early in the pandemic, subway workers crowded into break rooms at end-of-line stations where it was difficult to maintain social distancing, forcing the agency to use buses or out-of-service trains as alternate quarters.

A sign at MTA headquarters gives reminders of social distancing rules, among other requirments.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

“The MTA has a larger system where they’ve learned these important measures — unfortunately, the hard way — and should be a model for other offices reopening,” Daglian said.

Among the other safety protocols are:

  • Workers should access kitchens only to heat food or retrieve it from the refrigerator.
  • Conference rooms should be avoided in favor of online meeting platforms. “Essential in-person gatherings” should be held in “open, ventilated spaces” where six feet of social distancing is possible.
  • Only one employee at a time should use photocopy machines.
  • “Consider how you will greet others without shaking hands. (e.g. verbal greeting or hand gesture).”

“We try not to handshake,” Warren said.

‘Must Remain Flexible’

At some locations, the guide notes, employees will “perform required self-screening” for COVID-19 symptoms. But at other “critical locations” such as the Rail Control Center in Midtown, employees will be screened by a “temperature brigade” at the start of workshift.

Kathryn Wylde, the head of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders that employ more than 1.5 million New Yorkers, said many global businesses that endured the pandemic in Asian countries already have implemented staggered employee shifts.

But she noted the MTA’s experience can be useful, with only 10% of office workers in the city expected back this summer.

“Our surveys show it will still be only 40% of the workers who will be back by the end of the year,” Wylde told THE CITY.

As in the transit system, masks are also currently required in the lobbies of MTA buildings. But protocols are subject to change, according to the employee guide.

“Over the next several months, we must remain flexible as new and refined information is issued that may require adjustment during the new reality,” Patrick Foye, the MTA Chairperson, wrote in the guide.

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