A Message From DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido
Next week represents a major milestone in New York City’s recovery from COVID-19. On Monday, when the school buses head out to all corners of the city and kids walk their route to school with groups of friends, those of us who were here for the worst months of the pandemic will look on and smile. What at times felt unimaginable is here. Schools will return in full. That is something we all wanted and something we should celebrate, but we cannot mistake this milestone for more than it is. The public health risk is far less for our kids, and the last year has shown us that learning belongs in the classroom, not over Zoom.
For the rest of us, however, we spent the last 18 months adapting to the new reality — learning to do our jobs from our kitchens, living rooms and the occasional park. By all measures, productivity is up and the city is functioning. Why then is the mayor rushing the return to office buildings for some 80,000 workers who have done their jobs to satisfaction remotely?
As the executive director of District Council 37 — New York City’s largest municipal union — I represent the lion’s share of the city workforce. Last year, two-thirds of my 100,000 active members were deemed essential and continued reporting to work in-person daily. We largely have them to thank for keeping the city running.
In May of this year, Mayor de Blasio announced it was time for everyone else to return to work. Pegging the first day for full return to the first day of school, he mandated that all city workers be at their desks on Sept. 13. Now that day is around the corner, but it is undeniable that the situation in our city has changed drastically in the three months since the initial announcement was made.
At the start of the summer season, with the vaccine largely available for the first time, New Yorkers had a new lease on life. They were seeing family members that they had missed over the holidays. They were reuniting with friends in restaurants and bars. Vacations were planned and we were seeing fewer and fewer masks on our streets.
That is no longer the case. Now New York City, like the rest of the country, is plagued by the delta variant, with other variants rearing their ugly heads, as well. Our daily positivity rate hovers around 3%, this week even nearing 5%. In the past, a daily average of 3% positivity was enough to start shutting things down again. Today, City Hall looks the other way while asking its workers to return.
Other employers — public and private — see the writing on the wall. New York State pushed back its “return to work” deadline until mid-October. Private companies are telling their workers to get comfortable at home until at least the start of 2022.
There is too much work left to be done. Office conditions at city agencies have not been thoroughly checked to ensure they are safe by today’s new standards. This is a basic safety requirement for workers, many of whom have worked tirelessly from their homes and now being thrown into a situation that puts them at risk — and potentially fuels another wave of the virus.
So desperate was the city to implement this policy, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services removed the social-distancing requirement still recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This alone puts our workers at risk. Many of our COVID-19 positive cases and deaths during the pandemic came from city offices that did not have, or follow, social-distancing guidelines.
It is obvious the decision to bring back city workers is not rooted in public health or science. This is an effort to return to normalcy faster than is recommended, and clearly a caving to the desires of New York City’s business community. That is no way to govern.
We must put the safety of New Yorkers first. With the delta variant, and other COVID-19 variants now of concern, the city is taking a heavy — and needless — risk with the lives of our members and their families.
Our union already lost too many people. Of every three COVID-19 deaths among city workers, two were part of our family. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.
This pandemic is not over. We must not rush our way backwards. We have to listen to science, watch the data and make informed decisions.
The mayor must allow those who have worked successfully from home continue to do so, until we can guarantee their safety.