New York City’s non-strategy to furloughing workers

NYC crossing guard
NYC crossing guard
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
A crossing guard in Queens in 2018.

New York City’s non-strategy to furloughing workers

The city isn’t thinking strategically about whose job it can get by without – at least not yet.
May 13, 2020

Every weekday, I pass crossing guards on both corners adjacent to the public middle school one block from my home in Brooklyn. Once I asked if they had any kids to help cross the street, since the schools were shut down to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. They said no. 

So why is New York City, when facing an estimated $9.7 billion in lost tax revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic, paying them to stand on the corner? The cost-saving solution seems simple: furlough them, as so many businesses have laid off or furloughed employees during the economic shutdown. But nothing in the New York City government is ever simple. In reality, there are political and practical impediments to immediately and temporarily trimming the public payroll – and perhaps tactical reasons for the de Blasio administration not to do so. 

As Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute noted in a recent New York Post op-ed, the third federal coronavirus-relief bill, known as the CARES Act, expanded unemployment insurance with an extra $600-per-week benefit through July. If the city furloughed employees whose job responsibilities are moot under the “New York State on Pause” shutdown of nonessential businesses and government offices, they could go on unemployment. “Our city government, too, has tens of thousands of workers, at least, who can’t do their job in a lockdown,” Gelinas observed. “The city could help individual workers as they apply for unemployment insurance and pledge not to let anyone lose a paycheck. The city could also continue paying health benefits.”

Gelinas argues that the Department of Education is the best place to look for cost savings: Nearly half of the city’s workforce is there. Many of those employees, including most crossing guards, school safety agents and cafeteria workers, are unneeded at the moment. (A small number of food-service workers and security guards in schools carry out the grab-and-go program of free meals to replace school breakfasts and lunches.) And because these job categories pay low wages, sometimes as little as the state minimum wage of $15 per hour, these employees would suffer far less loss of income by being moved to unemployment insurance than would cops, firefighters or teachers. 

But the union representing these DOE workers is staunchly opposed to layoffs or furloughs. Collecting unemployment benefits through New York’s clunky, bureaucratic Department of Labor process is a huge hassle, especially right now, and workers could go weeks or months before they collect. The cost savings of furloughing low-paid workers is also relatively modest. “You're not going to save that much money on people’s backs, with the money they’re making,” said Shaun Francois I, the president of Board of Education Employees Local 372, which represents crossing guards, school lunch workers and other school support staff such as teacher’s aides. 

Then there are the downsides of layoffs: Lost employee income sucks even more money from the local economy and any layoff of public sector workers comes with a political cost. “I think the unions would be quite upset and would very strongly protest,” said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College, referring to the possibility of furloughs or layoffs. This would be all the more true after the federal program runs out in August, if it isn’t renewed. “There will be social costs – they’ll need to go to food banks,” Freeman said. “You might just be shifting costs.” Unemployment benefits are also paid, in part, by the state, which is facing its own projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

And there are social costs besides the economic costs: A job means more to many people than just a paycheck. When you lay someone off, “you’re destroying the soul of a person,” Francois said. “We’re saying now, ‘Do not touch our people.’” 

The de Blasio administration’s reluctance to destroy the souls of workers is selective. As Gelinas observed, “the city shows no compunction about laying off some education workers: bus drivers, because they work for private contractors, are already on furlough.” But furloughing unionized public employees would be a different matter, politically, and New York City has strong public sector unions. 

One alternative, put forth by a reporter at an April 29 press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, is to redeploy some of these idled workers to assignments fighting COVID-19. The city is currently hiring contact tracers to track down everyone who came into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, so why not use people the city is already paying? Why not redeploy crossing guards as contact tracers? Shea responded, “When we look at crossing guards, I think it's well known, you tend to have people that are a little bit older. So we are very cautious of how we use those crossing guards in what capacity and people in terms of age, prior medical conditions and the situations we put them in.”

This was an oddly narrow response, because not all crossing guards are old. Perhaps a more illuminating – but more politically fraught – explanation would be that not all crossing guards are qualified to be contact tracers, as the position requires certain skills they may not all possess, such as computer proficiency. The job pays better than being a crossing guard, $57,000 a year, compared to an average of $28,000 per year for crossing guards.

On the other hand, school nurses aren’t working in closed schools and they have more comparable skill sets and salaries. Why not use them? Well, the union contracts aren’t necessarily set up to allow the city to shift workers from one job to another in a different agency. For instance, when de Blasio fretted last month that keeping cars out of streets closed to traffic required too many NYPD officers, one might have wondered why crossing guards couldn’t be used for that. Even if the crossing guards’ own union representation was on board, another relevant union – representing cops, for example – might consider it encroachment on their turf. “Unions won’t do that to each other,” Francois said. “It might be a contractual or legal problem. It’s not that it can’t be done necessarily, but there’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

One area in which the city has cleared bureaucratic hurdles is using employees from agencies including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of City Planning, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Parks Department and others to act as “social distancing ambassadors.

Nonetheless, the city’s approach to these staffing questions seems a bit aimless and incoherent. Already, the city has instituted a schedule for reduced crossing guard staffing, with each one alternating between a week on and a week off. But if crossing guards are often medically vulnerable and they aren’t needed at schools, why not just pay them to stay home?

Shea’s comments also raise questions about the contact tracing program. The commissioner’s premise seems to be that contact tracers will get exposed to COVID-19. Won't they have personal protective equipment? Should everyone applying for a contact tracing job assume they have a high risk of contracting COVID-19? Will the city not be hiring people over a certain age or with certain health risks for those jobs? If so, what will those age and other restrictions be?

City & State posed all of these questions to the de Blasio administration on Monday and never got a direct response. But in its limited comments, the outlines of a political strategy can be detected. “We’re not going to get into specifics on possible layoffs or furloughs,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein wrote in an email. “We’re in the middle of a federal stimulus battle and our focus is on getting the money from the feds so that we can keep services New Yorkers rely on. It would be premature to go into any greater detail on contingency plans.”

A source close to city labor relations said that it may be too early for the government to have developed plans on how to reduce labor costs, in part because any policy would be heavily dependent on what happens in future federal legislation. 

Perhaps, by not weighing these vexing tradeoffs, de Blasio is trying to keep the heat on Congress to provide sufficient aid. It would, after all, make sense for Congress to appropriate sufficient funds to states and cities to combat the coronavirus and build up a robust testing and contact tracing system. Even Republicans, including President Donald Trump, would ultimately stand to benefit – both personally and politically – from obtaining the conditions needed to safely reopen the economy

When de Blasio warned on May 6 that even essential employees, including frontline workers such as police, could be laid off or furloughed, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch offered the overwrought rebuke that “if we cut cops, there will be chaos.” For once, de Blasio might have been happy to be criticized by Lynch, since provoking apoplexy from NYPD officers – a group Trump is unusually responsive to – might be a more effective way to get attention from Republicans in Washington than to talk about other New Yorkers who would be harmed by budget cuts. 

It might make sense to furlough some cops, since most categories of crime are down during the pandemic and Lynch agrees with opponents of police brutality that NYPD officers cannot be trusted to enforce social distancing laws without resorting to violence. But for de Blasio, showing how he would try to minimize the deadliness of such cuts isn’t the best way to cajole Congress into coming to the rescue.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
20200602