As the Omicron variant surges, vaccinated city employees say they’re not being notified when someone in their office tests positive for COVID-19 — and they’re pleading with Mayor Bill de Blasio to let them work remotely.
Under guidance distributed by the city, only unvaccinated employees and those more than two weeks away from getting a second shot are notified of positive cases in their office.
Some employees who spoke with THE CITY said they found out about positive cases through word of mouth — or, as one Administration for Children’s Services employee said, when they noticed offices of colleagues out for over a week being cleaned without explanation.
“City workers have already sacrificed too much. How many positive case records must we surpass before City Hall decides to protect them?” Henry Garrido, the executive director of DC 37, New York’s largest municipal employee union, said Thursday — calling a telework option “long overdue.”
“Our members have proven they can do their jobs from home,” he added. “They cannot continue to be used as pawns in a political game.”
Remote work became the norm for most city office workers after COVID first invaded in March 2020. But late this summer, after vaccines became widely available, de Blasio ordered staff back to work in person full time.
A spokeswoman for the mayor, Danielle Filson, pointed to the city’s high vaccination rates and other safety measures as part of the city’s protection for workers.
“Vaccination is the single best way to protect yourself from COVID, and every single city employee is vaccinated and masked, thanks to the strong mandate the mayor put into place months ago,” she said in a statement. “We are in constant communication with our health leadership and any decision regarding remote work will be based on health and science, and recommendations from our doctors.”
Hospitalization numbers for the vaccinated have been significantly lower than for the unprotected. Yet they can still catch and spread the Omicron variant, as was the case with New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.
Nearly 23,000 people tested positive in New York City for COVID on Wednesday, smashing records set earlier in the week, according to state data.
The surging caseload has many city workers on edge.
“It just seems to me this is more about the mayor being, ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s fine,’ but it’s at the detriment to city employees,” said one top official at the Department of Social Services, adding that there have been clusters of positive cases in their office over the last two weeks.
Get to Work
On Wednesday, agency and unit heads at departments across city government received a reminder of the attendance policy — doubling down on keeping employees in their offices, even if they’ve been exposed to COVID.
“Please be reminded that all city employees have returned to working in the office and telework is only allowed on a very limited basis,” read the email, sent by the “agency restart team” at City Hall and obtained by THE CITY. “Agencies do not have the discretion to implement a telework policy on their own.”
Employees who test positive or have symptoms of the virus are told to stay home, as is any worker who isn’t fully vaccinated and has come in contact with someone who had COVID over the last 10 days, according to the missive.
But employees who are vaccinated and may have been a close contact of a COVID-positive person should still come to work as long as they are asymptomatic, the email advised.
A “close contact” is defined as someone who was within six feet of a person for at least 10 minutes over a 24-hour period.
Filson said every city employee who may have been exposed to someone with COVID should be notified.
On Wednesday, de Blasio defended the city’s response and noted that 94% of the workforce is vaccinated.
“We care about our workforce a lot, that’s why we provided a healthy environment and that’s why we mandated vaccination,” he said.
“If someone gets a positive test, then they qualify, of course, for very generous sick leave,” de Blasio added. “If they get a negative, they’re negative. It’s straightforward in that sense. But we need to keep this city running and that is our responsibility as public servants. We need to keep this city running and that’s what we intend to do.”
Double Standards and Safety Fears
But workers, who asked not to be named by THE CITY out of fear of retribution, said there’s a double standard at some agencies — with top bosses and commissioners working remotely as their subordinates are forced into the office.
And at least one agency, the Financial Information Services Agency, instituted a remote option this week, while officials at other departments insist that agencies cannot establish their own telework policies, according to emails reviewed by THE CITY.
City employees THE CITY spoke to said they feared for their safety at work, despite high vaccination rates.
Some also decried the lack of consistent masking enforcement.
“I started using a different bathroom months ago so I wouldn’t have to walk through a division where almost everyone was in cubicles maskless,” said one Department of Consumer and Worker Protection employee.
And some COVID-postive city employees said they were only able to take advantage of a paid leave policy if they had results from a PCR test, not a rapid test — a point of frustration given the long lines at testing sites.
Meanwhile, city employees with increased health risks or disabilities that affect their work say they have continued to struggle to secure the accommodations they are entitled to under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the city’s own law. They keep running into the city’s lack of a telework policy.
One Department of Education employee is forbidden from working from home even though she first requested to telework as a reasonable accommodation in the summer, upon finding out she was pregnant.
DOE officials closed or denied her requests, saying they were no longer granting accommodations for COVID-related risks, according to emails reviewed by THE CITY. That’s an apparent violation of the city Human Rights Commission’s guidance.
The pregnant employee said she’s working with HCR to try to come to a resolution with the education department, but she’s still waiting.