New York City Mayor Eric Adams isn’t backing down on the city’s mandatory return-to-office policy for municipal employees. In an email to agency heads, the mayor’s chief of staff Frank Carone urged the higher-ups to continue to enforce the in-person work policy, Politico New York reported.
“Please note, the Mayor has repeatedly emphasized, for the City to continue its comeback, we need employees from every sector to return to their offices,” Carone wrote.
While a large swath of city workers – including uniformed and public-facing employees – have been working in-person throughout the pandemic, many office-based public servants were able to work from home through 2020 and part of 2021, when COVID-19 tore rapidly through the city and vaccines weren’t widely yet available. Those employees gradually returned to the office in the spring of 2021 and then were required to work in person full-time by that September.
Though that policy started under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Adams has continued it and has shown no signs of relaxing it anytime soon, despite what some city workers called a crisis of morale and staff shortages. (Adams did say in a Q&A with the press on Wednesday that “there’s going to come a time we may say that one day a week we may do some type of different version,” appearing to suggest some openness to a partially remote schedule at some point in the future.)
Several city employees who aired their frustrations about the in-office work policy to City & State earlier this year said today that they’re starting to lose hope that the policy will change, despite some indication that municipal unions might prioritize fighting for a telework policy in upcoming contract negotiations. “I’ve been beating this drum long enough. I’m too tired to be really angry about it anymore,” said a city employee, who asked not to be identified in order to speak openly.
The employee added that their frustration with the policy had only grown since the most recent COVID-19 surge in the city accelerated over the past few weeks – and is starting to go down. “The pandemic is still a thing,” the worker said. “We’re facing increasingly transmissible variants with increased vaccine escape. We’ve got a better understanding of long COVID, although still imperfect.”
Though employees at different agencies report that the enforcement of the in-office work policy can vary based on the agency and manager, they said there generally has not been extra leeway granted to work from home during the current surge – or during surges earlier this year or in 2021.
District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union, recently sent a survey to members asking about their priorities, and one option included telework. But while employees who spoke to City & State said they hoped their unions would fight for a remote work policy, they acknowledged that it could come at the cost of other priorities at the negotiating table, such as protecting health benefits or getting cost-of-living raises.
That’s partly why City Workers for Justice – a group of current and former city employees fighting for remote work – pushed for Albany to pass a bill that would allow city workers who are able to perform all or some of their work remotely to work from home. But that bill hasn’t advanced, and the odds of it passing with one day left in the state legislative session are low.
Several employees City & State has spoken to have considered leaving city service in search of jobs that offer more flexible work policies, despite the benefits of municipal work, including the fulfillment of public service. “The pension is nice, but I have a life to live now,” the city employee said. “The two-and-a-half hours a day that I lose to a commute, that adds up.”
Others have already left. Jeremiah Cedeño, the co-founder of City Workers for Justice, recently left his job at the Human Resources Administration to work at a mental health nonprofit that offered flexibility to work from home. “They trust that we’re adults and we can meet all our deadlines and do our work if we’re not in the office,” Cedeño said of his new employer.
To a greater extent than de Blasio ever did, Adams has pinned the city’s economic recovery from COVID-19 on workers returning to office buildings – particularly in Manhattan – and has said that the municipal workforce should be “leading the charge.” “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,” Adams said on Wednesday. “How does that look that city employees are home while I’m telling everyone else it’s time to get back to work?”Adams also acknowledged the inequity in the fact that some city employees have never been able to work remotely, even during the worst of the pandemic. “The train conductor can’t do it from home. The school safety agent can’t do it from home,” he said on Wednesday.
But some employees said they resent having to lead that charge when they can do good – if not better – work at home. “City workers aren’t stupid,” said an employee at the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and who asked not to be named in order to speak openly. “We know that we’re sort of tasked with keeping Manhattan foot traffic alive for the Sweetgreens and all the commercial real estate tenants.”
That employee said they have watched colleagues leave, in large part because of the lack of flexibility on remote work. “We absolutely cannot retain, hire, maintain staff at appropriate staffing levels, and it’s affecting my day to day,” the employee said of their division within the health department. “It’s certainly gotten worse since (March).”
As of mid-May, the New York City Independent Budget Office reported that the current full-time headcount for the city was about 283,000 – compared to the pre-pandemic headcount and the current planned headcount, which both exceed 300,000. “As we reported in March, the city has struggled to keep up with the post-pandemic rate of attrition, and the impact is felt unevenly across agencies,” the office wrote.
The health department employee added: “The walk to the exits is becoming a jog.”