returning to the office

Six Municipal Workers on Going Back to the Cubicle

“Those elevators are packed like a can of sardines.”

Photo-Illustration: Curbed: Photo: T_A_P/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo-Illustration: Curbed: Photo: T_A_P/Getty Images/iStockphoto

On May 3, 80,000 city employees will return to their cubicles in office buildings across New York City for the first time since last March. Mayor Bill de Blasio has cast the municipal-office reopening as a major step in New York’s pandemic recovery, saying, “We need our city employees that work in offices to come back because we need to do more work and better work to serve the people of the city.” But union leaders and city workers point to poor ventilation and a lack of space to spread out in city buildings. Less than two weeks before municipal employees are set to return, some agencies have yet to fully detail in-office protocols or share new staggered schedules with their workers. And on top of all that, there’s an increase in COVID-19 variant cases to contend with. We spoke with six city workers about returning to office life during a pandemic.

Rickey Jenkins, 62, works as a tax auditor for the Department of Finance. Before the pandemic, he worked at 375 Pearl Street.

Working remotely has worked very well for me and my team. We don’t really need to be in the office because we don’t deal with the public. And any report we generate we can transmit electronically. Going to the office really makes no sense. For meetings, our conference rooms are small. There’s no social distancing. And then if we hold virtual meetings at our desk, that doesn’t work because we share our floor with others and they can hear our conversations, which are supposed to be confidential. That has not been addressed.

If I’m sitting at my desk working, I’m virtually in a closed can because there are no open windows; they are sealed. Our seating arrangement is like being in school. I sit in the front desk. There’s another guy three feet behind me, another guy three feet behind him, another person three feet behind, and then the supervisors. If social distancing calls for six feet, then my entire unit cannot come to work, or we got to sit at other people’s desks.

I’ve been at that building since March 2019, and before the pandemic, no one had changed the filters in the water cooler, so as far as changing the air filters, I don’t know. And then the elevators. Coming to work in the morning and going home in the evening, and even sometimes at lunch, those elevators are packed like a can of sardines.

To me, right now, the logistics aren’t being thought out. It’s just a garden-variety decision: Everybody, go back to work. We’re not supposed to eat at our desks. What to do about lunch on a rainy day has not been addressed. The men’s room can hold at least five people at a time, now you’re only supposed to have two people in there at a time. The elevators are now required to hold only three people — we only have access to five elevators — we have like 2,000 people in the top five floors. My personal feeling is, when I go back, I just want to go back and work. I don’t want to wait in line for an hour to get into the building. I just want to be able to work unimpeded. I don’t know how possible that is going to be with all of these restrictions.

Yudelka Tapia, 55, is an auditor for the Office of the New York City Comptroller at 1 Center Street.

I sit in a cubicle. My co-workers and I can see each other. It’s not six feet separation. This is for about 200 or 300 people for the same area. We don’t know what the plans really are. I haven’t seen an email putting all the details in what is going to be the protocol.

You cannot be in a workplace and not talk to your neighbors and be with a mask the whole day. Some of the windows can be opened, but we have gigantic windows and to be able to open them, somebody from the building has to come. I’ve been worried about it: that we won’t have the circulation while we’re all in the same space for seven hours.

The city wants to make believe that everything is back to normal, but it’s not. Many people are still scared. They don’t want to get on the subway. I haven’t gotten into a train since March 12, 2020. I’m going to request a parking spot so I can drive to my office. I mean, there’s too many things and too many questions that are not answered. We have seen our neighbors die. We have seen our families die. We have seen so many people die. That is not something that people can escape so easily.

My grandson is 100 percent remote because the times that I have sent him to school, two of the other students tested positive for the coronavirus, and one of the staff. I might take a leave because I’m not going to send him to school if he’s not safe. I’m fully vaccinated, my husband too. But my grandson, he cannot get the vaccine. If I happen to get the virus, I could pass it to him.

Reggie works for the New York City Housing Authority and is returning to his cubicle at 90 Church Street.

I’ve been working in my apartment all this time and I just want to see familiar faces again. So I’m actually looking forward to it. Have some semblance of normalcy. Just saying “hi” to them.

We’ve kind of got the plan of how it’s going to work where there will be 25 percent occupancy going into the building. The question will probably be ventilation, swiping in and swiping out of the building. Also we have to answer questions to get into the building. And there’s an elevator-occupancy limit as well. I’m fairly confident they’ll get it right. The best way to put it is, it’s wait and see, and once it happens we’ll finally figure it out. Overall, the union was really good in getting us vaccinated before we were supposed to come back. Local 1407, they were good with that, so right before I do go back, I’ll be fully vaccinated.

Alex* is preparing to return to a city planning role in his downtown office building.

We’re in an 120-year-old-plus building, so the HVAC system is probably not what they are in the newer buildings. It is a very large building with lots of other tenants so we’re mixed with them, we don’t necessarily know what the protocols are for these other businesses. Another concern is that the technology at the office environment is somewhat lacking. I don’t have a camera at my office computer, how am I going to participate in Zoom calls? What if I don’t have a microphone? Which I don’t.

I think one of the primary reasons why it’s valuable for people to be in the office is to be able to collaborate and actually work side by side in close quarters and have in-person meetings. But it sounds like we’re not going to be allowed to do that, which sort of defeats the purpose of coming in to work. In general, I don’t really fear for my safety, I’m vaccinated, but I just think, for a lot of us, we just don’t really see the point right now and we’re frustrated.

I am fine with dealing with a little bit more discomfort and sort of the awkwardness and inadequacies of working from home if I knew it would make everybody safer in the long run. I think there’s definitely an opportunity here to reimagine what working looks like. A hybrid situation where we could sort of drop in when we need to and be able to work from home most of the time. I think, talking to my colleagues, that’s probably the best option now. Like, 75 percent work from home and 25 percent in the office would be ideal.

If I were to go into the office tomorrow, I would be sitting at my desk doing the same thing I would be doing at my kitchen table, probably not interacting with anybody. So even though the risk of getting COVID might be very small, it’s still a risk and it just seems completely unnecessary.

Christopher Salnave, 38, is a benefits worker with the New York City Employees’ Retirement System. He’s preparing to return to 335 Adams Street.

My desk, I call it the central hub because it is next to two managers’ offices and then everyone else in my cubicle. In my section, there’s at least six or seven people that work there, counting myself. So normally, there’s a lot of traffic going back and forth. So everyone who sits behind me has to get up to go to the printer, to the bathroom, go to lunch, come in the morning. There’s a lot of traffic going my way. So that interaction now will be minimized. When people pass my desk, do we say “good morning” still? Or do we just wave? Because there’s fear that talking could spread COVID, or something like that. Those water cooler conversations are gone. Going to the pantry to maker yourself coffee or tea, that’s gone. Everything now is bring in your own stuff.

I actually bought an electric bike. So the plan right now is to ride the bike from where I live to the job. I’ve done it twice when I had to pick up equipment that I needed to work. That wasn’t too bad, it was like an hour and 15 minutes, so it was slightly longer than the train.

If I look at how I’ve been working over this last year, I’m so much in a controlled environment. It’s like moving out of your parents’ house: They pay the bills, they feed you, do the laundry, but eventually you have to grow up. But in this case, it’s not growing up, it’s, do I want to risk my life to COVID?

Lucy* helps people access benefits at the Human Resources Administration. She’s expected to return to 109 East 16th Street.

I miss the friendships and the co-workers, like actually seeing them face-to-face, versus on a Zoom call or speaking on the phone. You do have your certain friendships at work, you know, you’re not the best of friends but you have that bond. That bond is not defined during a phone conversation or a virtual thing. It’s that physical connection with another human being that is being missed throughout this whole pandemic.

I’m asthmatic. I asked, “Can we just wear the face shield, the Darth Vader-looking one?” and they were like, “No, it has to be that and the face mask.” So I was like, okay, I have to make certain decisions to see what I’m going to do personally because I don’t think I can wear that for seven hours straight for myself to be able to breathe normally. Because at the end of the day, your health is wealth.

I have to decide that I’m still going to work for the city of New York. I’m very thankful that being a municipal worker, we have the option to do the reasonable accommodations regarding our health. But I can’t do that forever.

*Curbed has changed these workers’ names to protect their identity.

Six Municipal Workers on Going Back to the Cubicle